One of the most common questions I get from schools I work with is, ‘How do I motivate the unmotivated student?”

And while my knee- jerk reaction would be to insist there is no such thing as an ‘unmotivated student;’ I’ve been an educator for long enough to know that some students aren’t easy.

In the context of project- based experiences, I find that students are usually un-motivated for one of the following reasons:

  1. They don’t find the problem/ project meaningful
  2. They don’t have the opportunity to insert their passion 
  3. They don’t feel a sense of purpose

For me, great PBL experiences are like Goldilock’s porridge. They are challenging, but not impossible; meaningful and relevant to students without being disconnected from academic discourse; and able to accommodate for students with a diverse range of passions and interests.

Ticking these boxes when devising PBL experiences will help ensure 90-100% engagement.

So how do we tick all three boxes and get students to lead and manage their own learning?

The intersection of passion, problem and purpose

1st: Help students find a meaningful problem to solve 
2nd: Help them identify their greatest passions/strengths 
3rd: Help them use their passions to address the problem with a sense of purpose

I’ve seen this simple visual manifest itself in over 100 student- led projects.

—> It’s what allowed a pair of students from Florida to address the problem of plastics in the ocean, by using their passion for 3-d printing to create biodegradable water bottles (purpose).

—-> It’s what allowed two students in Shenzhen, China to address the problemof overconsumption and waste, by using their passion for app creation to create a global footprint app (purpose).

—-> It’s what drove students in Beijing, China to address the problem of air pollution, by using their passion for engineering to build their own bamboo bicycles (purpose).

The Short 30 Minute Lesson

You know I like simple.

To help students find their problem, passion and purpose, begin with an anecdotal story of students who tackled a big problem through their passion. This   will inspire them that they too can make a difference.

Next, direct them to three boards. One entitled ‘Passions;’ one ‘Problems’;and one ‘Purpose.’ Supply post- it notes.

Ask students to begin with the ‘Problem’ board. Tell them to write down all the problems they wish could be solved in their school, local and global   community on separate post- its. If you need to, take them on a ‘problem- finding’ hunt.
Once the board is filled, move on to the ‘passion’ board. Have students list their greatest passions/ strengths. If students are struggling, have them   partner up with the partner identifying their greatest passions/ strengths.

Finally, have students move to the ‘Purpose’ board. Tell them that the point of this board is to combine their ‘passion’ with a ‘problem’ to find their ‘purpose.’   They will grab a post- it from each of the previous boards to write their ‘purpose’ statement.

Students now have the starting point for their projects. Re-assure them that they aren’t married to it. They can change at any time.