Recently I had the pleasure of sharing a mini-keynote to start two days of professional development at Renaissance College, Hong Kong. My goal was to highlight the power we have as teachers to engage and inspire our students by finding that spark of passion that lives within all of us (you can see how I came up with the title, Finding the Spark). If you’d like to see my slideshow, click here. Also, this is the second in a mini-series about my work with RCHK, see the first post about my work with the leadership team here.

As usual, I couldn’t help but start with my own powerlifting journey, and the enthusiasm I feel when training, competing, judging, coaching and even helping to build our brand new drug-free federation here in Thailand. I know that all of us have something we are equally as passionate about (unrelated to school / work), and when we remember how we feel when we’re participating in those passions, that’s the environment we want to create for our students.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time in schools, students feel more like this:

I believe that happens when we are missing that passion. And we can find it when we provide …

authentic audience, agency, and purpose.

Here’s what I mean:


When we’re asking students to demonstrate their learning, we can ask ourselves:

  • who is the audience for this work?
  • who will be able to interact with, comment on, share or provide feedback for this work?

While of course there are many valuable learning tasks which might still stay within the walls of the classroom, if the only person who really ever sees an important student project is the teacher, it might be a good opportunity to reflect on ways to add a more authentic audience.


When we’re facilitating learning experiences for students, how often do they:

  • have ownership over how they demonstrate their learning?
  • have ownership over what they learn about?
  • have ownership over how, when, and what they are doing, both during class time and for “homework”?

If students are told precisely what to do and how to do it at every step of a project, it might be great for meeting the learning outcomes and producing uniform work, but it might not be engaging for students – this might be a chance to consider whether there are places where more choice might make things a bit more interesting.


When we’re assessing student understanding, do we think about:

  • why would we be doing this?
  • who in the “real world” does this as part of their career?
  • why is it important to know or experience this?
  • how does this connect to today’s world?

If we struggle to answer this question, it’s likely that our students will struggle to see the purpose or relevance as well. Sometimes it’s just a matter of seeing how the content we’re teaching relates to a bigger concept or context visible in today’s society. Other times, it might be an opportunity to question the value of the content we’re teaching or the way we’re asking students to learn.

Making the Connection

I think it’s easy to see these connections for ourselves when we think about our own passions and interests, and how we feel when we’re learning about those. Especially when we compare them to how we feel when we’re asked to do by our family or colleagues, like: washing the dishes, document curriculum, or being “voluntold” to serve on a committee.

If we can find opportunities to look for authentic audience, purpose and agency in the learning experiences we design for students, perhaps we can help them also find the spark they might have for our subject area (or at least for learning, in general).

What’s your spark? How do you find the connection between the way you feel when engaging in your hobby as compared to what you consider work? How do you make the connection to help you design authentic, purposeful learning experiences for students?

Image Credits

Sparks by Don Ayer, CC licensed on Flickr

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