Digital Literacy 2010: Passion-Based Learning

With our 1:1 Tablet PC initiative entering its third year, I am once again teaching a 7th grade Digital Literacy Course this fall.  Although the responsibilities of managing 10 sections and 159 students (while juggling the demands of supporting the rest of the Middle School) can be rather strenuous, teaching  keeps me grounded as an Instructional Technology Coordinator and allows me to put theory into practice.

In reworking my course over the summer, I decided to draw upon lessons learned from our Summer Teacher Institute and (1)  reframe my curriculum using elements of Understanding by Design (UbD), (2) employ principles of Passion-Based Learning (P-BL) (3) design differentiated learning experiences, (4) utilize student expression styles, and (5) create an online learning network to connect students and faculty.  Given that “Digital Literacy” only meets once every six days, for a total of 8 lessons, it’s something of an ambitious plan but one that I feel the students are ready to embrace.

Goals, Questions, Understandings, and Outcomes
To begin our first lesson, I presented students with the essential questions, enduring understandings, and performance outcomes for the course:


These important elements were derived from unit/course goals I established (based on the NETS Standards) and organized using the UbD Template from Wiggins and McTighe.  Even with a template for guidance, developing solid goals, questions, understandings, and outcomes can be arduous, and only represent the first step in the UbD process.  Resources such as the Understanding by Design Exchange and Wiggins and McTighe’s seminal work, Understanding by Design, are invaluable for anyone interested in UbD.  These first efforts may ultimately require refinement, but the essential questions reflect the key tenets of the curriculum and I believe will ultimately serve the students in their quest to become literate, self-aware learners:
  1. How does your passion affect and reflect who you are as a person and learner?
  2. How does technology affect and reflect who you are as a person and learner?
Passion-Based Learning

The ultimate goal of formal education is to foster life-long learning.  We all have personal interests that engage and motivate us to learn outside of the classroom. When we find something particularly inspiring, it may become our passion. Passion-Based Learning, the study of what we are truly passionate about, will drive the students’ exploration of technology and its prevalence in daily life.  As I explained to the students, “For this course, I will choose the skills; you will choose the content.”  In other words, I have defined a skill set that I wish the students to master, but the content (their passion) will be what connects all the understandings and outcomes.

Much has been written about Passion-Based Learning, but drawing on the work of John Seely Brown, Konrad Glogowski, Will Richardson, Lisa Nielsen and others, I’ve come to understand P-BL as an experience that empowers students to Discover and Consume, Communicate and Connect, and Create and Produce based on their deep-seated interests.  The first phase, Discover and Consume, can seem overwhelming for a 7th grader; adolescence is a tumultuous time.  In an effort to foster introspection, students completed the Interest-A-Lyzer.

Developed by University of Connecticut professor Joseph S. Renzulli, the Interest-A-Lyzer is a questionnaire devised to help students examine and focus their interests.  Students are asked to imagine themselves in a series of real and hypothetical situations, and then relate how they would react.  As the Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development notes,

“The primary purpose of this exercise to identify students’ interest areas is to stimulate thought and discussion. Students not only come to know themselves better, but also get a chance to share their discoveries with both teachers and peers. To ensure that students draw a true “self portrait,” teachers should:

  • Tell the students that there are no grades, or right or wrong answers.
  • Assure students that their responses will be kept confidential, if they wish.
  • Instruct students to follow directions carefully, to avoid group conformity or stereotyped responses.
  • Allow students to complete the questionnaire without pressures or time constraints.

Teachers play a dual role in fostering student interests. Once they’ve identified general categories of interest, they must refine and focus them, then provide students with creative and productive outlets for expressing them. A child who enjoys rock music, for instance, may want to become a musician, but there are other avenues he or she could pursue as well, such as that of radio announcer or concert producer. Teachers must be sensitive to students’ talents and inclinations within their fields of interest, and at the same time, encourage them to explore a range of options within those fields.”

Students were asked to share their completed questionnaire with their advisor, consult with friends and family, and tentatively identify their passion/research topic for the course.  To faciliate this process, a simple Google Form was used and I’ve made the results to date  (minus any personal information) available here.   Though you may not know these bright young minds, they are a passionate group of learners; I think we are off to a very exciting start!

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