Discovering Passion and Purpose Through Projects

In this 6-part series, I'll be sharing best practices and advice from educators that I interview in my fifteen-minute online Bam! Radio Podcast; Practical PBL Strategies


My fourth guest was Don Wettrick, the Founder and CEO of StartEdUp Foundation, author, and former classroom teacher at Noblesville High School in Indiana. Don has years of experience working with a genius hour and Project-based learning  (PBL) in a course he created focused on innovation ). During the past few years, he has been focusing on entrepreneurial skills and finding ways for educators to empower students with the essential skills they need for the future. Our conversation "Discovering passion and purpose for project-based learning" will help educators understand why this is essential for today’s classrooms.

Don has a lot of experience in this work and sets an example by being a risk-taker himself. He started his innovation course by diving right in and breaking tradition. He took a chance and moved from mainstream teaching and created an innovative classroom where his students were empowered to take risks with learning in the classroom. Making a sudden shift like this can be scary, even planning a change like this can cause some educators to hold back. When asked what his “aha” moment was, Don said talking about that aha moment is one of his favorite things to share. It all started with an email. 


Taking the Risk

One day he received an email from a colleague that said “Don, you have to see this.” It was a link to the Daniel Pink Ted Talk on YouTube. In his words, Don believes that “Daniel Pink is the Godfather of Genius Hour,” in particular how he talks about Mastery, autonomy, and purpose. Don watched the video and then showed the video to his class right after lunch and asked for their opinion about exploring their own topics of interest. His students said “It would be cool if they were able to do that” so he decided to start that Friday.

As for preparation, Don cites his impatience with wanting to get started and opting to dive right in. Teachers need to enable students to use some of their class time to learn the things that they want to learn. He says “Teachers can set goals and benchmarks to help guide students along the way so that they can assess themselves and how they are making progress.” 

It's so important when students have the power of choice and opportunities to explore things that are interesting, relevant, and meaningful to them. When they do, it helps them to make better connections with what they are learning and chart their own path. Teachers need to model risk-taking and help our students take risks as well because it amplifies their learning potential.

Don does a lot of work in bringing education and entrepreneurship together and believes that this is something that all educators need to do. “It's critical that we merge these two concepts in order to best prepare our students for the future.” 


Change Can be Hard

We know that change sometimes does not move as quickly as we want it to and knowing where to begin can be a challenge. When asked about how we can convince teachers that changes like implementing project-based learning or promoting more innovation and innovative practices in the classroom, Don said that we need to help educators understand how critical this is for students’ future. His advice is “You have to ask yourself, what is the point of school? The answer: not to prepare kids for the future because we don’t know what the future looks like.” So we have to prepare students with a variety of skills and that is not done through “ rote memorization.” We have to look for problems and then “See problems as opportunities.”

Don recommends that all teachers ask themselves, regardless of what they teach, “What problem are you solving?” He quoted Seth Godin, who said “All education can be boiled down to two things: solving interesting problems and the leadership to get it done.”  So ask teachers what interesting problems they are solving and if they don't come up with something or if they cite the standards, push them to identify a problem that needs to be solved in alignment with the standards. He encourages teachers to ask the students as well. When we do this, “that is when autonomy and purpose kick in.” Students have choices, it promotes student agency in learning and the development of essential skills that foster flexibility in a constantly changing world.   

When we invite risk-taking and give students real-world learning opportunities, “It shows why we are here and what we can do with our school time, how we can impact the world, the town, our home, and the school.  Don says to remember “It's no school for the sake of school, it's learning for the sake of wanting to learn, adapt, and make things better.”


The Learning Process Involves Taking Risks

It's important that we help students explore what they're passionate about and by bringing in tools or activities like project-based learning or genius hour we encourage independent, student-driven inquiry. In Don's book Pure Genius, he talks about how he started with his own students and how it has grown to something that involves students, schools, and organizations across the country and continues to grow.


How do we help students find what they're passionate about?

Don said it was difficult at first because students didn't trust what he was saying and doing. He was giving them choices and for students initially, it was difficult to believe that he wanted them to do more than just memorize facts. Even when students come up with an idea, one student mentioned doing a sleep study, finding ways to push their thinking, and supporting them. Don says getting the kids to not “play the game of school” was the hardest part. Getting students invested in their passion for learning, when they can work on whatever they want, will help them to understand that it's not about the grade, it's about the learning process. 

Don’s class was about innovation but it ushered in an entrepreneurial mindset.  He says “Entrepreneurs like learning, they don't necessarily like being forced into education. When you have a good idea, wanting to take ownership of it is entrepreneurship.” By helping students understand that they need to move from “what's the least I could do to get a grade” and shift to “I want to learn the skill because it's important to me and it matters.” will amplify their learning potential and interest.


Why it is critical to bring in a Genius Hour and entrepreneurship?

Don works with a program called Innovate WithIN in Indiana, which is an annual high school pitch competition. They are identifying and paying a stipend to teachers to talk to their mayor, to get involved in the city council, to talk to local nonprofits that need help because if we want to retain our talent (the students), they will stay if they feel like they're making a difference. Don says, “Especially Generation Z” and believes it's about making a difference.

Innovate Within: When teachers see students and how they're presenting, what the experience is like for students and educators. It's a free curriculum for the state and a partnership, and universities in Indiana are offering scholarships.

In some ways, it's an innovation and entrepreneurial contest, as well as programming.

Students identify problems and want to come up with solutions. You can check out some of their live streams to see the students presenting to the panel and answering questions.


How can we get started? 

“Teachers are the most equipped ecosystem builders ever,” says Don. Building connections, and building community, nobody can do that better than a teacher. He takes it very seriously and is proud of the fact that Indiana wants to lead the charge. They believe that equality of place in an ecosystem can begin with a 15-year-old and a teacher mentor who helps each kid to do more and seek more.

About Rachelle Dené

Rachelle Dené Poth is an edtech consultant, presenter, attorney, author, and teacher. Rachelle teaches Spanish and STEAM: What’s nExT in Emerging Technology at Riverview Junior Senior High School in Oakmont, PA. Rachelle has a Juris Doctor degree from Duquesne University School of Law and a Master’s in Instructional Technology. She is a Consultant and Speaker, owner of ThriveinEDU LLC Consulting. She is an ISTE Certified Educator and currently serves as the past -president of the ISTE Teacher Education Network and on the Leadership team of the Mobile Learning Network. At ISTE19, she received the Making IT Happen Award and a Presidential Gold Award for volunteer service to education. She is also a Buncee Ambassador, Nearpod PioNear, and Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert. Rachelle is the author of seven books and is a blogger for Getting  Smart, Defined Learning, and NEO LMS. Follow Rachelle on Twitter at @Rdene915 and Instagram at @Rdene915. Listen to Rachelle's podcast, ThriveinEDU, here:


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