Igniting a Passion for Learning


After attending a panel of students on the verge of dropping out of school, Francisco Escobedo, Superintendent of Chula Vista (California) Elementary School District, told a group of educators (including me), “Their number one reason they may drop out is because schooling is boring to them.” No doubt, boredom stifles learning. When I started my teaching career in my twenties, I was an enthusiastic, but somewhat naïve high school science teacher. The last thing I wanted to do was to bore my students with a lesson. So I did a lot of fun demonstrations, included unconventional lab activities, and asked my students to work together often so that they might motivate one another. Looking back on this twenty years later, however, I think I may have mistaken entertainment for engagement. When applied to learning, engagement, not entertainment, is the opposite of boredom. Entertainment and fun are outcomes of engagement, not the other way around. Think about something, anything—a subject, a set of skills, a vocation, or a hobby—that you know deeply. How did you come to know it so well? Probably you took something you really enjoyed, chose to find out as much about it as possible, met people who shared what they knew, and shared what you found with others who were just as interested in it as you were. And learning was a pleasure in itself. In his TED talk, “The Child-driven Education,” Professor Sugata Mitra related this quote from author Arthur C. Clarke: “Where there is interest, education happens.”

It is far too easy to blame students when they are bored. How many times have you heard some variation of “Kids these days don’t care about school,” or “Their parents don’t teach them the value of education?” This is neither fair to the students, nor is it a productive way to think about improving learning or schools. Instead, as educators, we should reflect on how we either contribute to boredom or to engagement. What conditions for learning do we set in our classrooms and schools? How do we design learning for and with our students?

One school district I have worked with, Rowland Unified School District in Rowland Heights, California, addressed these questions in a Framework of Efficacious Instruction. The framework represents the district’s shared agreement about the kind of instruction that makes a difference for students, including what the district expects its learning spaces to look like. I want to highlight two domains from this framework:

  • Building Democratic Relationships: Shared power among students and teachers is fundamental to creating a safe community where complex learning can occur.

  • Designing for Invested Cognition (Engagement): Engagement includes on-task behavior, and it further highlights the central role of students’ emotions, cognition, and voice, which functions as an engine for learning and development. It is a symbiosis of thought, action, and voice between teacher and student.

In other words, get to know your students, find out what is meaningful to them, and tap into their intrinsic motivation.

The photos above are pages from the actual framework. These are teacher actions and student behaviors that I hope will give you ideas about how to create learning spaces that ignite students’ passion for learning.

When I was a new high school physics teacher, I did everything I could to ignite my students’ interest in the subject. In hindsight, what we did usually came from what interested me the most. Now, I find myself wishing I had taken more opportunity to find out what my students’ interests were and that I connected those interests to the curriculum. I am confident that educators can make an intentional practice of connecting students’ whole selves with the curriculum.

What are some of your suggestions for doing this? Let’s talk about it in the comments section.

About Rex Babiera: As the former Director of Learning and Communications at The Ball Foundation’s Education Initiatives, Rex Babiera has over a decade of experience supporting and designing professional learning for educators. In the 1990s, he taught high school physics and physical science for six years. He is the author of the e-book Designed to Learn: School Remodeling Projects for the Twenty-first Century (www.designedtolearn.org) and is currently an independent education consultant and freelance writer. He earned an M.Ed. from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and an M.B.A. from the Anderson School at UCLA.

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