Passion-based learning

Incorporate passion-based learning into your class and give everyone a chance to pitch their idea, prototype and showcase their work.

Photo of Donna Teuber
12 10

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Amazing learning happens when students are given the time to pursue their interests. During the 2014-15 school year, students at Sandlapper Elementary were given time during the school year to pursue passion projects. Projects ranged from claymation videos to a website on cyberbullying. Students also had the opportunity to connect with high school mentors and members of the community to learn specific skills related to their projects. Students held a showcase at the end of the school year called CastleCon to share their work with the community and with their mentors.  Ridge View High School's Jeffrey McMicken had a similar 20 Time project and his students presented their work to the student body and community at the end of the school year. Having time to work on a passion project can be incorporated into the class/school calendar so that the time doesn't get used for other initiatives. Routines and rituals that formalize time for students to work on these projects will establish a culture of innovation.

We believe that passion-based learning with 20% time should be available for all students. By engaging students in pursuing their own interests, we are enabling them to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers. When students develop grit by persevering to learn more about their passions and experiencing failure as a learning experience, they will be well prepared for future careers. How might we create and sustain an environment where students have voice in how they learn?

To make time available, teachers can create playlists of resources that can be used in a blended environment. Students are able to move at their own pace through the content knowledge and take assessments when they are ready. Having dedicated time for content frees up other time for students to work on passion projects. Mentors from other schools and from the community can help to foster student passions by providing ongoing support.

In addition to the blended environment, it is also essential that students are able to use their passions to investigate and share their content.  Our students make stronger connections to their subject matter because they see a real world connection in a way they would otherwise not.  For example, our 4th grade students at Sandlapper  investigated the Age of Exploration and then designed prototypes of games, videos, and toys that would engage 3rd graders.  Our students interviewed the 3rd graders for feedback, partnered with a professional mentor, created the project, and then pitched their project to the 3rd grade focus group.  This process drove our students engagement and created connections to content that is often difficult.  

This same process is also used during math problem solving.  Students not only solve challenging, inquiry based word problems, but they also explain their thinking and use of math practice standards through their personal passions.  By using a passion to solve and express an inquiry based math problem, our students engage in deeper critical thinking.

Students need to be given time (at least 20%) not just to work on their innovative projects and ideas, but they also need constant exposure to the same innovation that others are working on - mainly their peers.  That’s why blogging weekly and commenting on classmates’ blogs should be an essential routine and ritual in a class implementing 20 Time.  Students respond well to feedback from one another and also are able to track their own progress in a personalized avenue online.  


Teacher Handbook

Teacher Resource Guide

Project CASTLE Project Design Template

Blended learning playlist

Mentor Toolbox

      Code of conduct

      Tips for Mentors

      Mentor Log

      Mentor Survey

Evaluation results

11 evaluations so far

1. Potential for Impact: Imagine this solution had near perfect implementation. To what extent would this solution bring about a culture of innovation within a school or classroom?

A lot! This solution would greatly bring about a culture of innovation in schools or classrooms. - 81.8%

Somewhat. This solution would somewhat bring about a culture of innovation in schools or classrooms. - 9.1%

Not much. This solution might help with other things, but I don't see it really bringing about a culture of innovation within schools or classrooms. - 9.1%

2. Feasibility and Fit: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: If this solution were available to me right now, I would be able to use it with relatively low investment. (i.e. money, time, or skills).

Strongly agree (this solution strongly aligns to my/my school's current capacities). - 45.5%

Agree. - 9.1%

Neutral. - 18.2%

Disagree. - 18.2%

Strongly disagree (this solution would take a big lift in resources to pull off). - 9.1%

3. Adaptability: I could imagine this solution working well in a variety of school and classroom contexts across a diverse set of needs.

Absolutely! I could see this working for a variety of schools and classrooms with different or unique needs. - 50%

Somewhat. I could see this working for many schools and classrooms, but it might need some adjusting to fit a broad diversity of contexts. - 50%

Not a lot. This seems like it might be better suited to only a few contexts. - 0%

4. Scalability: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: This idea could be adopted by an ever-growing number of teachers or students without requiring significant changes.

Strongly agree (this solution could easily scale without any significant changes). - 27.3%

Agree. - 36.4%

Neutral. - 9.1%

Disagree. - 27.3%

Strongly disagree (this solution would require significant changes in order to properly scale). - 0%

5. Desirability: Do you wish this solution were available to you right now?

1 - Not a lot. There's not a big need for this right now and/or we use something already that fulfills a similar purpose in my school or classroom. - 9.1%

2 - 0%

3 - 9.1%

4 - 36.4%

5 - A lot! There's nothing like this already and I'd love to have it in my school or classroom. - 45.5%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Britta Wilk McKenna

I love this concept of passion-based learning. Start where the interest lies and map out a learning plan from there is a great way to grab the attention right off the bat on something that matters deeply to the student, instead of the teacher.

Photo of David Harrington

As you know, I am a huge fan of what your district has been doing for many years now. You are a true inspiration.
I have two quick comments/questions:
* Wouldn't it be great to have a couple of the kids do a demo/talk/presentation at a school board meeting? So many of the last Board Meetings that I have been to have just been about $ or people complaining. This idea of PBL could spread quickly when principals and teachers see the board and community behind it.
* The second Q/C I have is this. During your open houses where other districts from around the country and come and visit, do you highlight this? It has been awhile since I have gone through one but I think your ideas could spread quickly since you have a captive audience.

Photo of Donna Teuber

Hi David, We do have students present at school board meetings and it helps to get buy-in from the board and the school community. The Project CASTLE kids also put on several events this year and invited board members and the community to attend. We have student focus time built into every board meeting which is a practice that puts students front and center. For our site visits, visitors have many opportunities to go into classrooms and see students engaged in PBL and presenting to class. There's also a student/teacher panel discussion where they can go more in depth about what they're doing in the classroom and talk about outcomes. Thanks for the great questions!

Photo of Carolyn Wendell

Great post Donna! I would love to hear a bit more too about how this time for passion projects came to be at SandLapper? Who actually came up with the idea and how did it get formally implemented inside the school? Also was wondering if one of these schools was influenced by the other to start this unstructured time with their students? If so, who influenced who and how did that work exactly? And if not, how could you imagine schools influencing other schools to take on something like this?

Photo of Donna Teuber

The 4th grade project came out of our innovation incubator with a group of teachers who wanted to find a way to give students an outlet for their creativity and interests. They realized that there would be a need for mentors to work with students because of their diverse interests. The administration has been very support of their efforts to expand the program and train teachers in other grade levels. The high school program was started by one teacher and he's had two years of growing the program. The magic has recently happened when he connected with the 4th grade team. They've been brainstorming like crazy this summer and have created a calendar that will allow the high school students to visit the elementary school on a regular basis and serve as mentors. One of my favorite TED Talks is Derek Siver's talk about First Followers. When you can get several people to jump in and start doing something new, others will begin to join in. At some point you have enough momentum to get buy-in from a larger group. With the two schools working together now, I expect that they'll have many showcases this year and we'll have the opportunity to invite teachers from other schools to learn about getting a passion-based program started.

Photo of Jessica Lura

I love passion-based projects! I think it's important for teachers and students to bring their interests into the classroom--it's so empowering. We do goal setting with students, K-8, and one of the goals students set is around personal interests and passions. These are usually my favorite goals (especially for the younger students--I will be able to build 5 BIG lego sets by myself by January).

How did you (the school?) get all the teachers on board? So often, teachers and/or admin worry about "losing time" and "not having enough time to cover _____." How did you combat that?

Photo of Donna Teuber

The passion-based program started with a 4th grade innovation team. The principal has been very supportive in allowing the team members to begin training teachers at the other grade levels. This is also a PBL school so the transition has been easier. It is difficult to get some people on board because of the time issue but there are ways around it. The school also has an after-school program for students who want to spend more time working on their passion projects.

Photo of Jennifer Auten

We created a makerspace lab at my elementary school this past year and it has gotten a lot of use. It's a great open space with a variety of supplies and moveable furniture so it can adapt to robots, art, buddy projects, etc. At the same time 20% time is gaining some traction, especially in the latter 1/2 of the year, although trying to make it a priority the 1st 1/2 as well. It is great for students to show their passion and it allows them to connect with each other in a different way.

Photo of Margaret Powers

I love hearing about passion projects in the early grades! I was just referencing your work with the R2 Innovation Incubator in this post ( and came across this link:

Do you see that as a space where older students would be able to pursue passion projects? Do you think a similar space will (should) be built for younger students?

Photo of Donna Teuber

We're definitely going to have space for high school students in the Institute for Innovation as well as space for our staff incubator, R2 Innovates. Interesting that you mentioned the younger students because we've just been brainstorming a way to have a learning lab where teachers could see how passion-based learning works with all ages. We have an accelerator team working on "How might we create and sustain an environment where students have voice in their learning?" I'm looking forward to seeing where our thinking goes next.

Photo of Brett Brownell

This is a great idea Donna, thanks for sharing! Are there plans to continue passion-based learning this upcoming school year? I'm also curious how you would like to see the program evolve? And what would you add or who else would you like to work with?

Photo of Donna Teuber

The teachers who have been working with passion-based learning at the elementary school and high school are now working together to find ways to expand the program. I'm excited that the Project CASTLE team was able to find ways to involve mentors and I'll be more involved this year as we develop a district-wide platform for connecting mentors with teachers and students.