How Passionate Teaching Breeds Innovative Learning

contributed by AJ Juliani

John Maeda grew up working in his family’s Seattle tofu store in the 1980s.

He was a bright and curious student who self-taught himself some computer coding in high school with no internet to learn from. Like many high school students he had dreams, but very little direction. Getting good grades, working at his family’s store, and other high school responsibilities took up much of his time. He also openly admits to “thinking he knew it all” at a young age, and rarely asking for help. Yet, it was his math teacher, Mr. John Moyer, and his chemistry teacher, Mr. Tom Wakefield that helped him begin to “dream with direction.”

As Maeda puts it in his article, What Inspires Me: The Proof That Great Teachers, Like Parents, Can Change a Life:

“STEM subjects are often put down as dry and lacking creativity, but we all know that when you have a great teacher who can inspire you to be curious, science and math can be interesting. And sometimes, when they can convince you (and your teenage ego) that you are wrong, that can be the best lesson of all.”

Mr. Moyer worked with John (even when John thought he knew more than his teacher) to show him a better programming method, all the while letting John teach him a thing or two along the way. Mr. Wakefield had so much belief in John that he went to his parent’s store (neither had gone to college), and suggested that they let him take summer classes in biochemistry at a nearby university because he had so much potential. Each of these teachers’ passion for the subject material and John’s learning goals provided a path to innovative learning that may never had been there for John.

John Maeda grew up to be called the “Steve Jobs of academia” by Forbes. In June 2008, Maeda became president of Rhode Island School of Design. At RISD, Maeda led the movement to transform STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to STEAM by adding Art. He’s published four books, worked with companies such as eBay, Sonos, Motorola, Samsung, Proctor & Gamble, and serves as a Brain Trust Member of the TED Conferences.

John’s lived a life as an innovative learner, but in his own words, those two passionate teachers set his learning path.

A Passionate Learning Path

Did you ever notice how much more you learn from passionate people? Whether it be a teacher, a parent, or a friend…when someone is passionate we tend to listen closer, buy in to what they are saying, and remember it later.

Yet, what is often missed in those undergraduate teacher lessons is the importance of passion for your subject, the young people sitting in front of you, and the pressing issues in our world.

In The Passionate Teacher: A Practical Guide, Robert Fried argues that many of the difficult issues in education today can be faced constructively, and perhaps be overcome, by passionate teachers. For Fried, “to be a passionate teacher is to be someone in love with a field of knowledge, deeply stirred by issues and ideas that challenge our world, drawn to the dilemmas and potentials of the young people who come into class each day — or captivated by all of these.”

Research shows that teachers—not books, technology, buildings, and even class size—are the single most powerful driver of student performance. That research is important for two reasons. First, it puts enormous responsibility and pressure on teachers to drive student success. Second, it should be our priority when considering improving our schools.  Better teachers, better students.

Yet, I’d argue that we don’t just need better teachers, we need passionate teachers that inspire innovative learners like John Maeda.

Tony Wagner, author of the book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World recently said in an interview that the most important skill students will need in our current and future economy is the capacity to innovate.

“The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge. As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.’”

So, how can we build that capacity in our students? The answer has three important parts:

  1. Passionate teachers
  2. Time & space for inquiry
  3. Learning from failure

1. Passionate Teachers

Bill Smoot went around the country and interviewed 51 teachers for his book, Conversations with Great Teachers. The teachers were from all walks of life, different ages, and various fields of education…but they all had one thing in common: a passion for what they were doing.

“Their passion is not only for the activity of teaching, but also for the ends it serves. Great teachers have humility in knowing that they serve a purpose larger than themselves. Even when I interviewed teachers in whom I detected a touch of ego, it was clear that they leave their egos behind when they teach. Nor did I find anyone who cultivated disciples. What the best teachers ultimately give to their students is the ability to make their own way forward”.

Each of these 51 great teachers had an inner passion that drove them to excellence in their job, and also drove their students to excellence and innovation in their work. They were always looking to improve their practice, and that included finding new ways to inspire students to make their own way. Some students may be born with an intrinsic ability to think critically and innovate, but passionate teachers let their skills grow through real work in and out of the classroom.

2. Time & Space For Inquiry

When I first gave my students the chance to work on their own “20% Projects” I wasn’t sure what would happen. I knew my students had the potential to create amazing things in school, yet many had never been given the time or space to create. The 20% time model, much like Genius Hour, gave my students the ability to compose music, build computers, create video games, write tutorials, make documentaries, and much more. Before this project I only “thought” I knew what great teaching looked like, after this project I saw that it had very little to do with standards, and everything to do with innovative learning.

3. Learning From Failures

Did students fail during our 20% projects? Of course they did. But they didn’t fail the project, and they didn’t fail my class, because the goal was learning…and when you fail, you learn so much more than any other experience.

Instead, we celebrated failures in my class. Keep this motto: “Sometimes you succeed…and sometimes you learn”. The greatest inventors, business leaders, and innovators have all failed. But what separates them is how they grew after each failure and learned from the experience. We must share these stories with our students so they embrace failure as the best way to learn.

Are you a passionate teacher? Do you know a passionate teacher? Chances are you’ve been impacted by one in your life. And chances are you can impact a young person’s life by sharing your passion with them, inspiring an innovative way of thinking and learning. I challenge you to “Teach Above the Test” this year and let your students create, make, and innovate.

Share your story in the comments below, and keep the passion going!

How Passionate Teaching Breeds Innovative Learning; image attribution flickr user servephotography