Passion vs. Participation: Passion-Based Learning Can Be For Athletes, Too

I have spent a great deal of time over the past few years thinking about the role early specialization has played in reducing muli-sport participation numbers and increasing cases of burnout and overuse injuries in young athletes. While I am pretty firmly rooted in my belief in the importance of multi-sport participation, I recently came across the term “Passion-Based Learning” and how specializing in the classroom is actively benefitting students at one independent school.

My graduate school capstone project was based heavily on the Selects Academy hockey program at South Kent School in Connecticut and my research gave me the chance to dive into its ideological forbearer, the Hockey and Soccer Centers for Excellence at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Minnesota. What I had not realized until I read the Winter 2017 issue of Independent School Magazine is that SSM’s specialized athletic programs were part of a larger model of passion-based learning with opportunities in academics, music, and athletics.

Shattuck-St.Mary’s Upper School Director Matt Cavellier’s “Majoring in High School” online feature in Independent School Magazine focuses on the latest addition to the SMM Center of Excellence model, “The Major.” This program, piloted in 2015, gives students not participating in one of SSM’s eight other Centers of Excellence the opportunity to really dive into a topic they have identified as a passion. The initial cohort produced projects in interior design, the role of gender bias in the classroom, and color theory and psychology. Students in The Major are given critical research skills in their first term before engaging more deeply with the material in subsequent terms to produce deliverables such as academic papers, research studies, and ultimately a presentation that wraps up the process of learning and designing their own course of study. From one student:

For Alexandra, the benefits are obvious: “Shattuck-St. Mary’s School doesn’t offer a course in gender studies, but with The Major, I was able to design my own. I set my deadlines and when I find something inside my project that I am extremely interested in, I can choose to follow that aspect as far as it will go. I’ve learned how to find reliable information as I research, and it feels good to know that I will be able to do the same in college.”

The power that Shattuck St. Mary’s is able to put in the hands of its students through The Major and its Centers of Excellence in BioScience and Engineering is inspiring. These programs allow students to “specialize” in areas of particular interest through experiences they wouldn’t get otherwise. Whether it is BioScience students shadowing a surgeon or Engineering students designing prosthetics for people who need them, SSM students are gaining practical experience in a field that requires it.

Are SSM’s hockey players, soccer players, golfers, and figure skaters not engaged in passion-based learning as well? What makes spending three terms diving into BioScience so different from spending nine months playing ice hockey? These questions have forced me to reconsider parts of my stance in the specialization vs. participation debate, particularly in the case of high school student-athletes.

PvPJust as we want our math majors to have taken AP and Honors courses, we want our collegiate hockey and soccer players to have received the training they need to pass the tests they will face in college and as professionals. By engaging in the Center for Excellence program at SSM – and the Selects Academy program at South Kent – these student-athletes receive incredibly specialized training in their chosen sport from experts in the field. This most certainly limits the numbers in other sports and eliminates the possibility of offering others, but if you are producing driven, goal-oriented, passionate student-athletes aren’t you achieving one of the most important goals of a high school athletic program?

I would love to see more high school graduating classes full of two- and three-sport varsity athletes, but I also enjoy seeing young people who cherish their sport and work hard at their craft go on to achieve their goal of playing at the collegiate and professional level. The opportunity for athletes to engage in passion-based learning alongside future doctors and engineers represents a positive way to engage those who would like to specialize without impacting a program where participation is emphasized.

Jimmy Kelley is a coach, advisor, and storyteller at The Rivers School in Weston, MA. You can find him on Twitter at @JimmyKelley_ or on LinkedIn.

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