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March 11, 2021

Unstoppable Learning: Making Room For Students’ Passions

I came back from my morning run completely energized. I took my headphones off and continued to puzzle over Sugata Mitra’s compelling segment on the TED Radio Hour, Unstoppable Learning, which I had been listening to and which suggested that in many ways, teachers are getting in the way of learning.

A tough pill for me — a teacher of seven years — to swallow.

I scrawled some thoughts in my journal — “students in pursuit of learning,” “fostering curiosity,” “CHOICE,” “unstoppable learning…” — and grinned as I imagined what this transformation could look like in my classroom. This always happens, I reflected. I get the best ideas when I have more time to listen, to read, to run. I always learn the most when I have space just to think. As a new mother and a classroom teacher, lead teacher, mentor, fellow, friend, and wife, my days are jam packed. Further, my time is often completely scheduled. The time and space to read and think is few and far between. But making space for it is so, so important.

It was then that I realized how imperative it was to make this shift in my classroom. To make room for unstoppable learning.

Inspiration Time

The first day possible, I started what I then termed “Extended Learning Time.” (It is now affectionately referred to as “Inspiration Time.”) I was completely transparent and shared my rationale with students: “As your teacher, my job is not only to help you learn and master our objectives and standards, but much more importantly, to help you become lifelong learners. In order to be those kinds of scholars, I need to give you space and time to ask yourself, ‘What am I curious about? What do I want to pursue?'”

Students Think, STUDENTS Choose

In the past, when I made space for “Choice Time,” I put options on the board and students got to choose. But not this time. I’ve come to realize how, in so many instances, we rob students of the opportunity to think for themselves, to create, to imagine. Their entire days are structured by adults. I’m reassured that my students’ day offers choice within blocks of time: they choose their books to read, they choose their writing topics, they choose their strategies in math.

But I think we can do even better. I feel strongly that it’s my responsibility to foster curiosity, and give my students MANY opportunities throughout the day to choose, to make responsible choices for themselves, because they are thinking actively about what they are curious about, and making a plan about how to pursue those interests.

Teachers can begin with questions like: “What are you curious about? What is inspiring you? What is your plan to pursue it?” At first, students may need direction, but don’t steal the opportunity from your students to grapple and problem solve. Give space and time for them to develop. Ask purposeful questions. Build their capacity as a class community that seeks out one another and collaborates. Help them build on the passions you’ve observed and share insights. For example:

“I noticed how some of you really marveled at how developed Christian’s writing topic was on outer space. You might find him and ask him how you can develop and grow your topic of interest. Others of you really puzzled over Jaylene’s strategy in math, and you’re STILL wondering about it! What can you do if the wheels in your brain are still turning?”

Carving Out Time

Most teachers, like me, feel jam-packed in their days. I LOVE the curricula we’re using, and often wish we had more hours in our day to really pursue it. But our days and hours are limited. You’ll look at your schedule and think, “Implementing Inspiration Time is impossible!” But I’m certain this time will make the rest of your day more meaningful. Making space for this type of learning and exploration has led to the following outcomes:

1. Consolidating Learning

When I think about how valuable breaks are, I feel grateful for how the time allows me to really reflect on what I’ve learned, recognize gaps in my understanding, and make plans for next steps. Teachers often exist as though we’re sprinting through a marathon, which we know is both unhealthy and impractical. In the same way, students need time to consolidate their learning and not just be filled with new information and new strategies all the time. Our current models of jam-packed school days that have early start times, late releases, and hours of homework are not conducive to true consolidation of learning.

2. Building Connection

Aside from being a beautiful space where students are able to pursue academic topics of intrinsic value, “Inspiration Time” helps students build and strengthen connections. My most struggling readers are seeking out their friends, asking them to coach them on a chapter that is just out of their reach. They’re signing up for “Office Hours” with the class expert on boxing, asking her for a mini lecture. These experiences strengthen my students’ relationships with one another, and deepen their sense of class community. They also strengthen my connections with them, as it offers an authentic means for me to get to know my students.

3. Fueling Joy

Inspiration Time is a tangible way to show students how FUN it is to learn! The joy of learning and the connectedness we feel during Inspiration Time spills into other parts of our day. Students make deeper, more meaningful connections between content because they have engaged with it in personal and authentic ways. The feeling that I had after my run, where I felt so good, so energized by a new idea — that has completely transpired in my classroom! And with 25 students bubbling over with excitement, they create a synergy and positive morale that’s contagious.

If Not Now, When?

If we’re afraid students won’t make responsible decisions, or that student-driven learning time won’t be as valuable and meaningful as teacher-planned and teacher-led learning, then all the more reason Inspiration Time must find a way into our classrooms. Our students deserve opportunities to grow as critical thinkers, to be given purposeful feedback to develop their passions, and the independence to pursue meaningful work.

How have you been giving your students the opportunity to lead their own learning?


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