Passion-Inspired Learning in the 21st Century: What Would You Do with a Student Like James?

How do you take up teaching in a world where knowledge is becoming obsolete?


This statement could possibly be argued by James Holzhauer, one of the most winningest players on NBC’s Jeopardy game show and fourth-highest-earning American game show contestant of all time who set several records this spring. I wonder what his take on this question would be when his success was based largely on his acquired factual information.

Watching Jeopardy is a thing in our house and we keep track of points based on the most correct trivia answers. But alas, we can’t all be Jeopardy superstars…

In class this week, Dr. Couros posed the question:

If you can Google it, why teach it?

NCTE definition of 21st century literacies doesn’t suggest doing away with information gathering but rather being able to manipulate information in a different ways for the purpose of the skill set they describe. This type of information is different than generations past may be used to. The NCTE definition of 21st century literacies states:

Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to:

  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.

In this list you see verbs such as DEVELOP, COLLABORATE, DESIGN, ANALYZE, SYNTHESIZE, CREATE, and so on which are all high level thinking skills in the frequently referenced Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a hierarchy which means that obtaining skills in one area leads to success in the next skill set. If “knowledge is at the basis of these six cognitive processes” (the Bloom’s explanation of knowledge is explained further here), knowledge acquisition, in whatever form, is foundational. Googling something is one source of knowledge acquisition but in order to truly learn something, I reference the paradigm of constructivism:


This paradigm suggests a deeper connection with learning new information through some type of experience and reflection. I previously thought that this depth of understanding could (most successfully) come from face-to-face learning. But my thoughts have change significantly as a participant of Alec’s online courses throughout the year. The style of this online course allows for the collaboration, connection, conversations, problem solving, and exploration that I could receive in a physical classroom and additionally, I can take what I learn and apply it in a hands on manner. Cue this semester’s learning project.

I return to the question at the start of the post:

How do you take up teaching in a world where knowledge is becoming obsolete?

I really struggled with this blog topic in 2018 when I was first asked to comment my thoughts on the role of teachers in a world where knowledge is becoming increasingly obsolete. The 2018 version of this blog post can be found here. Much of what I believed then, I am still holding on to today:

  1. While knowledge is at our fingertips through multiple devices, you still need to be able to live in the real world. For example, you need to know your multiplication tables (and other basic math skills) to competently navigate the grocery. I can’t imagine having to pull out a calculator to determine which brand of apples is the best bang for my buck. Additionally, do you get to Google answers during job interviews? While interviewees are increasingly asked problem-based and creative thinking questions during interviews, it is important to have a knowledge base in your field. Finally, if you are leading a professional presentation or teaching in a classroom, is it appropriate to misspell words? Can you stop the class to look up the spelling of a word you are attempting to use? These are just three quick examples I can think of; there are many more.
  2. Future work skills are going to look much different than they do today and teaching students to “find, sort, analyze, ultimately criticize and create new information” — as Michael Wesch suggests in his video Knowledgable to Knowledge-able — is paramount.
  3. Although the power of tech is amazing, tech integration can be tricky in disadvantaged spaces. Curriculum infused with tech integration cannot occur when access to tech is the barrier and students lack of access to tech has prohibited basic tech skills. I teach primary students and I don’t even want to imagine the amount of time we have spent learning to login to the computer! Much of what we do in the primary grades is foundational for the passion-inspired learning projects, discussed in this week’s readings, that take place in subsequent years of schooling. It is critical to learn how to learn.
  4. The role of the teacher is important. Google doesn’t replace a quality teacher.

With these ideas in mind, my teaching has changed from the beginning of my career to now. My classmate Nancy discusses student disengagement in her blog post this week which is big issue in the world of teaching which calls for a rethinking of how we are currently “doing” school. Teachers are, by their job description, responsible for student learning. My classmate Curtis discusses a shift in the role of the teacher from information dissemination to what my classmate Dean calls a learning leader. Curtis argues that teachers must go through an unlearning process; a process that my classmate Daniel and myself included are beginning to venture upon. My shift in teaching has been about learner-centred approaches to curriculum, technology integration and, social and multi-disciplinary learning. A few anecdotes come to mind as I think about how to alter my teaching in the coming years:

  1. My first attempt at Genius Hour several years ago was a fail. Which is okay because I learned a lot. I didn’t scaffold well enough in teaching the skills of how to learn about something they were interested in.
  2. Coding Ozobots to move around a racetrack and follow flashlights was a really engaging activity for my students. I want to learn more about how to use robots and coding for the purpose of tech integration into primary curriculum.
  3. Getting to use and share their work on SeeSaw with their parents and classmates was also really motivating. Commenting on one another’s work with emojis is really cool! Providing constructive feedback between classmates is challenging. Here is where I see opportunities for social network learning and Brown and Adler’s ideas on social learning. Additionally, this calls for digital citizenship education of which student privacy and safety is paramount.
  4. Building a Ping Pong Ball Rollercoaster (STEM activity) was very challenging for my students who are typical “do well at school” students. My students who are “less classroom savvy” in the traditional sense, did really well. The social aspect of working as a team was challenging for all involved. Learning to work productively, and efficiently in collaborative groupings is vital in an ever-changing world and it is a skill that my students were deeply lacking. Additionally, I learned the multi-functional value of interdisciplinary projects. For further reading, my classmate Catherine discusses the value of arts integration with other disciplines.

The bolded words highlight where I’d like to go with my teaching. Many of these bolded ideas connect back to the requirements of 21st century literacies discussed at the beginning of this post. In his video Knowledge is Obsolete, Pavan Arora suggests that due to the rapidly changing nature of knowledge, teachers, like myself, question what they should be teaching. Pavan argues, “we teach creativity…how to access knowledge, how to assess knowledge, how to apply knowledge”. By engaging students within the power of networks, in which knowledge is rhizomatic, highly interconnected, we allow them to participate (sharing, connecting, collaborating) in the collective and ubiquitous accumulation of digital knowledge.

Back to James Holzhauer, Jeopardy champion-extraordinaire. My earlier argument about Holzhauer indicated that for him to be as successful as he eventually became, knowledge wasn’t obsolete. That is, his vast range of trivia knowledge allowed him to achieve the standing that he did. While I can’t say this for certain about James Holzhauer specifically, I would imagine a few things about him (and others like him) to be true. First, he is creative. A quick scroll through his Wikipedia page informs readers how he employed strategies to the game that others had not previously done and “revolutionized the game of jeopardy“. This requires not only creativity, but also critical thinking. I return to those verbs from the 21st century literacies: DEVELOP, DESIGN, ANALYZE, SYNTHESIZE, CREATE; all skills required to effectively strategize. Second, his vast range of knowledge points to cross-curricular and interdisciplinary learning required of 21st century students and professionals. Third, his love of learning (about what he’s interested in) is evident. As a teacher, fostering a love of learning is a top priority and I think it can be achieved by reimagining the role of teachers. According to this article, Holzhauer wasn’t the “school” type. He had mediocre grades and often skipped class to learn and participate in gambling (his pre-Jeopardy profession), “reasoning he could use the time more productively” by accumulating poker winnings rather than sitting in class. If teachers begin to re-imagine their roles and teaching strategies, a love of learning can be inspired. This re-imagination can start with the introduction of social network learning and passion-inspired projects (Holzhauer’s would undoubtedly have been gambling-related) into the classroom. We have all had James’ in our classrooms. What would you do with a student like James?

3 thoughts on “Passion-Inspired Learning in the 21st Century: What Would You Do with a Student Like James?

  1. Great post, Brooke! I like that you brought in Bloom’s Taxonomy into the conversation. I wonder if there will be a shift in where “create” falls in the pyramid in the next few years?

    I often think about how we can differentiate our teaching/student learning for a student like James. I think this brings it back to building relationships with our students. If you take the time to understand where your students are coming from, you will be able to teach in with a more student-centered approach (gone are the days of puling out the same projects and units every year). I had a principal say “slow is fast”, especially at the beginning of the year. With the pressure to get right into curriculum, we are doing our students a disservice. Maybe we start with individual passion-based projects right from the start so we have a chance to get to know our students on a deeper level?

    1. Interesting thought about “create” falling in a different area of the pyramid. Especially with STEM and STEAM projects, sometimes the creation leads to understanding of a new concept.

      I totally agree with you about the relationship building with students like James. I really like the “slow is fast” comment as well. It certainly rings true!

  2. I love how your post comes full-circle, Brooke. Talk about thorough!

    I really enjoyed reading what you had to say, and your comments around James Holzhauer really made me think. I’m on a trivia team that typically scores in the top 3 of 25 or so teams every week, but I often feel the random knowledge of trivia knowledge is not something to be particularly proud of. I’ve often joked that it’s one of the least valuable skills you can have. But your post made me reflect that the steps that led to acquiring that knowledge are valuable and really can reflect powerful learning, so maybe I’m less dismissive of it than before.

    It seems like you have a lot of growth between your courses which is impressive but I suppose also expected to some extent (it’d be worrying if we didn’t!). I’m taking this course as an elective, so I feel like I’m taking baby steps by comparison, but your wide-ranging post really helps me see where I one day want to be!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s