"Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."
One thing I have come to understand with great clarity during my crash-course in the K-12 landscape is: if a student truly cares about her education (as in, genuinely desires to improve, or more importantly is genuinely intrigued/stimulated by the subject matter), she will succeed. It's often that simple.
One part of that equation (the desire to improve) can be triggered with luck/time/effort/discipline. Students can be shown a potential life path (like politician or engineer) and be steered toward this goal step by step: if you want to be a senator, you will have to go to a good Law School; if you want to go to a good Law School, you have to do well on the LSAT and succeed in college; if you want to succeed in college, you have to... and so on. With a bit of luck and persistence, a student can be put on a path to learning success and be fueled by their end goal. I call it the Reverse-IfYouGiveAMouseACookie Theory of Education.
The other path (intrigue/stimulation) is less easily pursued. There is little space in the current education landscape for true passion, unless you happen to be passionate about quadratic equations. School curriculum has always been a regimented endeavor tied to specific sets of data that must be absorbed--and the addition of Common Core is unlikely to change this much.
But what if we set off one third of the school day for kids to become real experts in whatever they want? What if we adjusted the structure such that the students were the ones teaching the adults? Self-guided projects where the teacher gives constant and consistent feedback have the power to both latch onto a student's true passions as well as demonstrate real world examples of the theory they spend years studying and consuming within the classroom. You won't be asking "why do I need to learn how to calculate a derivative?" if you see calculus clearly intersecting with your hobbies and interests.
I'm a few years removed from the K-12 lifestyle at this juncture in my life, but to my knowledge topics like Physics and Language Arts are decidedly "uncool," whereas things like race cars and acoustic guitars are likely closer to being "cool." So, why not leverage what's cool? After all, it's tough to know much about race cars without having a solid grasp of aerodynamics, wind resistance, and engine mechanics. Similarly, it's tough to give a compelling explanation as to why Jimi Hendrix put on a better set at Woodstock than Carlos Santana without proper grammar, vocabulary, and general debate skills.
Curriculum was necessarily rigid for most of our past learning experiences because the content we had access to was generally limited to the textbook we received the first day of class. Now we have Open Educational Resources (OER). We have YouTube. We have Google. We have Skype. We have myriad paths for students to explore most any discipline they desire to undertake. What we now need is a guiding hand.
If we let kids actively explore the subjects that pique their curiosity, we can surely factor some legitimate learning (Common Core Approved!) into the equation. When the script is flipped (as is traditionally the case), it's much harder to discover and leverage passion.
This idea of latching onto passion and pushing learning accordingly is inherent in the Do-It-Yourself movement (DIY), but it is much more often lacking in other aspects of the learning experience. One of the hot startups in the ed-tech world of late is a website called NoRedInk. A recent graduate of Imagine K12, the company is attempting to combat the writing/grammar epidemic currently sweeping our schools. While STEM gets all the glory as the problem child, the truth is that we have an equally troubling, if not more so, state of literacy in the country: reading, writing, grammar, and the like. NoRedInk has created a platform for students to test their grammar skills within the context of subjects they care about. When a student signs in, they are given the option of a number of subjects (Harry Potter, One Direction, or the NBA for instance), and their subsequent adaptive problems will revolve around these areas of passion.
Does this truly elicit a passionate response out of its students? Does rearranging sentence structure pique a student's curiosity simply because the subject is "Lebron James" and the verb is "dunking?" I think the answer is something close to: slightly. But NoRedInk is just getting the ball rolling on the "passion in the classroom" front. I hope this is just the beginning, and that others will follow this pattern. I hope the coming wave of start-ups in the ed-tech community does not take for granted the power of passion in education.