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March 26, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 14

A Blueprint for Interest-Based Learning

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EngagementInstructional StrategiesCurriculum
We all love buffets: long tables with artfully arrayed foods in unending supply. Why is this such a universal human response? Maybe it's because we have a choice, an opportunity to make our own decisions based on our individual gastronomic profile. Can we provide a similar buffet in our classrooms to satisfy our students' unique learning interests? We think so; when we provide choice, voice, and support for student inquiry, we empower their sense of agency, creativity, and innovation.

A Universal Design That Incorporates Students' Interests

Today's classrooms, driven by high standards and accountability, sometimes leave little room for student voices. It is not surprising, then, that we have witnessed the advent of initiatives such as Genius Hour, Makerspaces, problem-based learning, and Passion Projects as ways to reinfuse student agency. Each of these initiatives, despite their slightly different focus areas, places the student at the center of learning. Interest-based learning (IBL) is not an initiative to be added to this list. Rather it is a universal, comprehensive, easy-to-implement design that fuses eight components into one framework.

8 Steps of Interest-Based Learning

  • Step 1: Interest Finding. Once students have been introduced to the concept of IBL, it is time to identify their interest areas. We created two versions of a classroom survey, elementary and secondary, that teachers can use to elicit student's top interest areas. (Readers are welcome to contact us for copies.)
  • Step 2: Interest Focusing. Conference with each student to explore how an interest area can be transformed into a workable inquiry question. This process involves the use of webbing, exemplars, whole-class guided practice, another round of individual conferences with students, and the use of nine easy questions to enhance the quality of a student's inquiry question.
  • Step 3: Action Plan. Completed collaboratively by the students and teacher, the action plan includes places for students to track their goals, timelines, and resources, as well as the evidence that will be used to document growth. Teachers will also keep a record of project timelines, tasks, and standards addressed.
  • Step 4: Resources. The teacher guides the student in locating and validating credible primary and secondary sources to support their research.
  • Step 5: Research and Design. The longest part of the IBL process is the actual research itself. Our experience indicates that students conduct three major kinds of research: informational, experimental, and tinkering or design. All are worthy. Each type of research requires a slightly different process and product, as well as different kinds of coaching and resources (Purcell, J. H., Burns, D. E., & Purcell, W. in press; Schack, G., 1993, Starko, 1995).
  • Step 6: Products. Final products can be as simple as a one-pager or as complex as an iMovie or scientific experiment. What all IBL products share is that they are authentic and useful to the problem being researched.
  • Step 7: Authentic Audience. Students present their research to an authentic audience. This experience motivates students and empowers them to identify as problem solvers whose work has value in the community.
  • Step 8: Debriefing and Celebrating. Debriefing is a reflective technique used to gauge how successful, useful, and/or beneficial a learning journey was and to determine what could have made the journey better for key constituents. It is one of the most important phases because it solidifies learning and takes it the "next step." Debriefing can be organized around three categories of questions, What? So what? and Now what?, inspired by Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline.

Transforming Curriculum and Instruction

Implemented with fidelity, IBL holds the promise to transform traditional curriculum and support student leadership and creativity. By its very nature, it energizes traditional curriculum because it
  • Changes the role of the student. No longer a "lesson doer," the student selects his/her inquiry questions, establishes goals, monitors his/her progress, often producing a product that may be presented to a real audience.
  • Changes the role of knowledge. No longer linear, from traditional sources, and stored away by students for future use, knowledge is now determined by each students' self-selected problem as it unfolds. Students use their knowledge to act upon aspects of their problem in a cyclical fashion, and it is derived from many different real sources. Learning has no limits.
  • Changes the role of the teacher. No longer the master of everything, the teacher becomes a facilitator, mentor, and guide to each student. Classroom instruction driven by inquiry is focused and efficient, and the classroom environment is joyful, motivated, and inspired.

Interest-Based Learning in Action

Wellesley began his students' academic year with IBL by conducting some critical prerequisite activities. He allotted enough classroom time (about 15 percent of classroom time per week), had plentiful classroom space, and communicated through letters and meetings with administrators and parents. All key stakeholders were knowledgeable about Wellesley's goals and expectations for IBL in his classroom.
Most importantly, Wellesley spent 60 to 90 minutes introducing the concept of IBL to his students by generating curiosity through Ted Talks, YouTube videos, and the sharing of past IBL projects, debriefing students about the projects and videos they had just seen, sharing his vision for their upcoming class work, and sincerely and earnestly inviting students into IBL. This preliminary work with students had a huge payoff. Wellesley and his students co-owned the vision for IBL.
One of Wellesley's students, Shaneah, was a 7th grade young lady who was socially aware, displayed an uncanny ability to see the people and events from a variety of perspectives, with an abiding interest in all things digital. Thus, it was not surprising that, during the initial discussion phase of IBL, she blurted out, "Can you get us the laptop cart so I can do a digital storytelling project?" By the end of the 3rd quarter, she had completed an animated documentary series called Middle School Madness that featured the latest version of iMovie and showcased narrative sketches and interviews with middle schoolers. Her goal was to showcase the perspectives of the current students as they navigated the difficulties of adolescence and middle school to the student body, staff, and administration.
Another student, Pablo, was a quiet 8th grader, but IBL conferences revealed that he was concerned with the river water quality in town, especially below the water treatment plant. He developed a research project in which he measured the quality and temperature of the water above and below the treatment plant. Pablo conducted his research, wrote up his findings and presented his research in a Prezi format that was shared with treatment plant officials and the town council. Clearly, his IBL project rested squarely on one of the NGSS standards, and yet the research, reading, and writing he had to do in order to establish the procedure and develop a lab report for his project fell squarely within the domain for ELA.

The Benefits of Interest-Based Learning

After Wellesley began implementing IBL in his classroom, the learning in his classroom transformed in several key ways:
  1. Learning became student-focused because students shared responsibility for a small portion of the curriculum; they had choices and a voice.
  2. Learning was overwhelmingly and demonstrably aligned to standards.
  3. Learning was joyful. My students were engaged and motivated in an inspirational way that made our classroom fun.
  4. Student learning astounded faculty and community members alike. The quality and sophistication of student work, as a result of giving students agency within the curriculum consistently impressed staff and community members.
The impact of IBL can be summed up by Wellesley's student, Beatrice, who "felt like teachers have always tried to teach me what to think; this is the first time I feel like I've been taught how to think and really had to think for myself; I never thought I would have been able to pull this project off on my own."
References

Purcell, J. H., Burns, D. E., Purcell, W. (in press). The Interest-Based learning coach: A step-by-step playbook for Genius Hour, Passion Projects and Maker Spaces and in School. Waco; TX: Prufrock.

Schack, G. (1993). Involving students in authentic research. Educational Leadership, 50(7), 29-31.

Starko, A. J., (1995.) Creativity in the classroom: Schools of curious delight (6th ed.). London: Routledge.

Jeanne Purcell is a consultant and leadership development coach. A teacher for more than 40 years, she has worked with every type of school system and level to build sustaining plans with a singular focus: to increase student achievement.

She is noted for her expertise in all K–12 curriculum areas and her expertise in meeting the needs of all learners, from special education students with motivational issues through high-end learners. Over the last decade, Purcell has had extensive experience with all aspects of professional development and coaching, from listening and simple feedback for one practitioner to transformational coaching with entire central office teams and boards of education to secure new ways of thinking and creating organizational structures that enhance the learning needs of all 21st century learners.

She has held faculty positions at the University of Connecticut and Rutgers University, and spent more than 10 years consulting in the Connecticut State Department of Education. Her publications include authoring and coauthoring several books related to curriculum and differentiated strategies, in addition to numerous articles and technical reports.

 

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