Today was the first day of school. Over the previous week or so, teachers have been asking me if Passion Projects are mandatory this year – will everyone be doing them? This question causes me a lot of confusion because I know that the answer is “no” but should be “yes”. It goes against my principles to make something like Passion Projects mandatory, yet I want – more than anything – all of our students to get the opportunities that Passion Projects provide. I guess I want all of our teachers to want to provide them though… not be told they have to. The bottom line is, if they need to be told they have to do Passion Projects with their students then clearly they’re not seeing the power or the purpose behind them. Helping them see those things is, therefore, where my job comes in.
So, why should students be given time – on a regular basis – to work on things that are intrinsically interesting to them? Many, many reasons… but here are the ones that I feel are most persuasive:
- They deserve the chance to explore what genuinely interests them or what they are naturally talented at. This may, in many cases, be the only chance they get to do so. As Sir Ken Robinson says, in The Element, “too many graduate or leave early, unsure of their real talents and equally unsure of what direction to take next. Too many feel that what they’re good at isn’t valued by schools. Too many think that they’re not good at anything.”
- Passion Projects give students the time and space to learn how to inquire. Even in many inquiry-based schools, the curriculum is pre-determined and students are generating questions and research around topics that are teacher-created and controlled. The openness of Passion Projects expects students to determine their own projects, their own goals and their own next steps. It is this openness that is most challenging for teachers as so many students simply are unable to do those things – very often because they have not acquired them year-after-year in school!
- The habits, skills and behaviours that students take on and develop through the challenges of Passion Projects set them up to be more powerful learners in all other aspects of their life at school. When they see how learning applies to those parts of their life that they never associated with school before, then the act of learning loses its stigma. The distinction between learning and fun begins to blur… before eventually vanishing completely.
- Passion Projects actually set teachers up to learn from their students… not only about the things that the students choose to work on, but also about learning itself. We all become quite caged by own experiences – particular teaching practices – and we need, in some cases quite desperately, to be set free from them. Allowing our students regular time to develop their own projects means we can’t apply our old methods, we can’t see learning in the same, boxed in way that we have previously. We have to stand back, take it all in and rethink before our role in this situation becomes clear. As Loris Malaguzzi says:
“Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.”
So… Passion Projects. It may feel a little risky or scary to you. But the experiences of those of us who have been doing it a while show us that it quickly becomes everyone’s favourite time, that the learning taking place quickly supersedes any learning that was happening before and that students begin to amaze themselves and those around them in ways that previously may not have been possible.
Give it a go.
By using very simple mindfulness practices and routines, you can start to develop genuine independence and positive habits with students. Giving them the skill to walk into a room, find a space, relax, slow down and begin to focus on what they will be doing – and why – puts them in control of themselves and their learning.
Taking this bit of time at the start makes everything that comes after it more effective, more student-centred and more indicative of who they really are as learners.
In this video, Chad’s class are in the middle of a creative – and messy project. He is hoping to see his students take complete control of everything they do and has seen the power of helping them find and create the right mood before each session.
Mindfulness practice creates a mood, and skillful educators use that mood to help students be at their best.
Often, the mood that is necessary is one of independence, self-management and self-direction. I find it effective to give students a decent 10 minutes of mindfulness practice. Then, in the final stages of that practice, I ask them to consider what their intentions are for the time that follows. What will they try and achieve? What do they need or want to do?
We work towards being very detailed in the description, so rather than say “I will work on my project” they give specific details like “I will research how to split video files so I can edit my movie”. As you can see in this video, some of the students are quite specific and yet others are very vague. With regular practice, they would all be outlining their intentions with more detail.
This sort of strategy not only creates a mood and helps students be self-directed, it also gives the teacher a big picture of what stage each student is up to with the things they’re working on and how organized they are. In this sense, it is also a formative assessment. After the session in this video, I knew exactly which students I needed to give some time to and follow up with.