For a magical–and very trying–two years, I taught Kindergarten and 1st grade. It was probably some of the best teaching experience of my life: I learned about play, motivation, and student-driven learning in a way I had never thought I would.

As a part of our model for personalized learning that year, we tried passion projects with the kids. It was one of the ways we tried to demonstrate the degree to which we personalized, and one of the ways that some of the thought leadership recommends teachers personalize.

“Jane,” I asked one day while helping students generate ideas for projects, “what do you think your passion is?”

Jane looked at me blankly. “I don’t know,” she replied.

Not to worry, I thought to myself. I anticipated this.

I continued with my questioning, gave her a break from talking with me, and even tried to observe her in the classroom to see what she gravitated towards. When I observed her from afar, I noticed that always went for the Legos. She loved building with them.

Maybe she can do a passion project about Legos, I thought to myself.

To make a long story short, Jane never found her “passion” that year, and neither did a lot of my students. Jackson wanted to do a passion project on hurricanes, only to realize that he didn’t have the literacy, executive functioning, or self-regulation skills to research the darn thing on his own. All Cole wanted to do was play with blocks, even though I massaged that interest into a study of catapults that I still ended up having to coerce him into finishing.

There’s a misconception about “passion” in elementary school, and I feel as though I can say this because I used to subscribe to this misconception. I used to try so intently to help my kids access their passions and dig into them. But the reality is this: most kids are too young to know their passions; it’s just plain unfair to make them. And it seems like there may be some emerging research to support the idea that we need to stop advising kids to “find their passions“–especially at such a young and tender age. Here’s why.

It limits possibilities.

There’s a world of possibility out there. And when our children come to us at tender ages in elementary, middle–and dare I say–high school, we have to remember that they have so much of their lives ahead of them. Some of the most gifted and talented people in the world aren’t as successful and fulfilled as they are because they only followed their passion; they are successful and fulfilled because they are able to find meaning in what they do–even the parts of their work that they don’t like or that involve other disciplines.

Too often, the dialogue around personalized learning implies that children should simply learn about whatever they want, whenever they want, and that all the rest will come together. Not only is this wrong, but it’s creating a new problem in schools where this brand of personalized learning is valued, especially in affluent communities.

Instead of saying limiting possibilities, expand possibilities and next time say:

“We’ll learn about some things that interest you this year, and we’ll probably learn about some things that you don’t find all that exciting. But you’ll see that they’re all important to learn.”

It breeds entitlement.

When I first began working in personalized learning schools, I overheard a parent say to their child, “Don’t worry, honey, you’ll be able to learn about whatever you want here.”

The parent said this in response to her child’s desire not to come to school that day. Not to worry, it was early in the year, and by the end of the year, the child felt completely differently about school. But let me assure you: it was not because they “pursued their passions” all year long. It was, instead, because I built a relationship with them over the course of the year, helped them develop some self-awareness, and set boundaries around what was okay and not okay in the classroom.

When we tell kids they can “learn about whatever they want”, we communicate to them that it’s okay to disengage when they find the topic even the slightest bit uninteresting. This is not okay. And why? We need kids to be flexible thinkers; we need them to not judge a book by its cover; and we need to, instead, teach them that there might be something interesting or useful when they look past the cover and into the pages, even if it’s not instantly gratifying to learn about.

To combat entitlement, try saying this instead:

“Sometimes we have to learn about things that we think we don’t want to learn about. It might make you feel a little anxious or annoyed, but we’ll learn about why it matters and how it well help you later.”

It engenders a fixed mindset.

Our kids are becoming constantly more and more rigid. And why? They have to go outside of their comfort zones less and less. They are micromanaged, overbooked, and doted on more than children ever have been before. Moreover, in a world where an Amazon package can show up on their doorstep in less than 24 hours, they’re used to getting exactly what they want, when they want it, and in many cases, how they want it. This embeds a rigidity in our children and actually begins to cause them a great deal of stress when things don’t go their way. And what happens when things don’t go their way?

They act out.

The emerging research I previously mentioned also suggests that encouraging kids to find their passions engenders this fixed mindset.

The message to find your passion is generally offered with good intentions, to convey: Do not worry so much about talent, do not bow to pressure for status or money, just find what is meaningful and interesting to you. Unfortunately, the belief system this message may engender can undermine the very development of people’s interests (Dweck, O’Keefe, and Walton, 2018).

In essence, it can actually be counterproductive to the very development of deep interests in the first place, all the while solidifying a fixed mindset.

To avoid a fixed mindset, try this instead of “find your passion”:

This may not seem interesting to you right now, but it’s good for us to flex our flexible thinking muscles from time to time. You may not want to learn about this, but practice your flexible thinking and try to learn about it anyway. Think about how it might help you to know this in the future!


I’ll leave you with this.

In Experience and Education, Dewey states that the very reason adults are in classrooms is not because they are necessarily smarter than children; it’s because adults have the life experience to determine which experiences in our classrooms are “educative” and which are not. It’s true that we don’t always get this right, but it’s also true that if we let our kids do what they want all day long, they’ll likely use their time poorly.

But what’s even more important is this: over a third of our nation’s children (and that’s a conservative estimate) are living in low-income or impoverished households across the country. I hate to be bleak, but “finding their passion” isn’t going to get most of them anywhere. Many of them do not have their basic physiological and safety needs met. Instead, they spend most of their time trying to climb over barriers fortified by a system in which they are not intended to participate and/or succeed.

This is a critical piece missing from the thought leadership around personalized learning. We’re so caught up in these problems of privilege that we forget that a sizable portion of our brothers and sisters hardly have the resources necessary to even get to school, much less and benefit from it and “find their passion”.

Instead of finding our individual passions, our collective passion should be to pursue a personalized learning model that has equity and inclusion at its core. Our collective passion should be for creating an education system where all can participate–and all can succeed.

4 thoughts

  1. Hey Paul — on this point: “it’s also true that if we let our kids do what they want all day long, they’ll likely use their time poorly” — how do you define “poorly?” I’d be curious to know if you’ve spent time examining Sudbury schools and/or the unschooling movement, where kids are entrusted to spend their time as they see fit.

    1. Hi Lesley! Good to hear from you. When I think of “poorly”, I think of non-educative experiences: meaning experiences that don’t provide productive struggle, or experiences that aren’t helping to broaden or deepen knowledge. This is the role of the teacher in the classroom: we are there to design learning experiences that provide these things. Children are neither equipped nor trained to do these things on their own.

      I have spoken to someone who works for a Sudbury School in California, and it is a very interesting model. While interesting, I doubt it’s a sustainable or scalable solution for schooling nationwide.

      In essence, I don’t think any one party should be entrusted with the responsibility of how kids spend their time. I think it should be a partnership: the teachers have a role and the kids have a role. Placing all of that responsibility in the hands of a small child is too much responsibility and is developmentally appropriate for young ages. That said, I’m sure it’s a great fit for some kids that really need that type of environment!

      Thanks for reading–and for commenting!

  2. I really love the points you are making here, especially about teaching young students to work through things that don’t seem immediately interesting to them. My only concern is that, in practice, students often don’t understand why they are learning what they are learning, so they indefinitely suspend the “aha” moment for why it was important to learn a particular topic. Teachers can definitely give students that understanding, but they don’t always have the time to help all students. And then students get discouraged when they feel like the content is irrelevant and ask “why am I learning this” but don’t get a good answer. This is not to say that I disagree with anything you’re saying here, just that we also need to find more ways to make students see the bigger picture of why a particular skill they are learning will help them now or in the future.

    1. I totally agree, and it is our job to reach each of our students and help them understand the purpose behind these learning these skills. Thanks for your comment!

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