The Passion Problem

Categories: Education

Written on July 22, 2016

This essay was written for the Benedictus Young Scholar’s Essay Prize on the topic of education reform.

With this essay I was one of the three winners of the competition which provided me with the incredible opportunity to travel to Blackfriars Hall at Oxford University. There I had the chance to present my ideas before a research forum of 30 academics and distinguished individuals in the education sphere which was followed by a productive discussion.

While I am no longer actively researching education, I still believe these ideas have some truth to them and would like to see more charter schools and other educational vehicles implement them. AltSchool, Khan Lab School, and Elon Musk’s Ad Astra seem like great starting points for these ideas but there are likely new and exciting ideas that have emerged since 2016.

Prompt: “You as decision maker: what would be your vision for education?”

My vision is for an education system that has the fundamental goal of supporting students in discovering and pursuing what they are passionate about, using new opportunities in online learning to do so.

This vision rests on the belief that every individual possesses a passion, or set of passions, that are unique to them, and that finding this particular passion is life changing. When someone discovers a passion for the first time there is a shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation — having the desire to learn for the sake of learning and its intellectual stimulation rather than for an end goal which is often artificially created. Time becomes something to be utilised and captured rather than filled with distractions to pass the day.

Unfortunately, discovering what one is passionate about is a very difficult task which requires patience, time, and much trial and error. The problem with today’s education system is that it does not allow for this necessary discovery, leading to a large majority of students never finding something they truly enjoy pursuing or ever achieving their true potential.

This is because every student is taught the same material in the same way and at the same pace. Without the chance to try different fields beyond the small range offered, limited not only in the range of subjects but also the curriculum within those subjects, only a very small number of students are lucky enough to have passions that are aligned with what is available. Within the current monolithic teacher led model only so many courses can be feasibly offered which leaves even a school such as Eton College, where I attend, failing to offer subjects including: Computer Science, Psychology and Photography, to name a few. Meanwhile, even for the subjects that are offered, there are incredible curriculum restraints which prevent students from specialising in the areas they care about. For example, anyone wishing to study Biology must study plants for an entire year. What about neuroscience, anatomy and medicine? The constraints of having a set curriculum without any flexibility is particularly revealing when even the best medical schools do not require Biology to be taken as an A level! (Cambridge, 2016) Each of these topics is so broad and complex that they deserve to be their own subjects.

By not being passionate in what is taught at school but still forced to study it, this leads to the perception of all school work as ‘work’ and everything outside of school as an escape. This means most students become disenfranchised with school and assume they are not interested in academic subjects or learning as a whole. Instead, they will either drop out or survive doing the bare minimum in lessons and through extrinsic motivation in the form of grades, exams, and set expectations. For example, of approximately 30% of the American students who dropped out of high school, 88% had passing grades and the most stated reason for quitting was boredom (Thornburgh, 2006). Backing up this claim, a 2015 Gallup poll showed that for US students across all ages only 50% were engaged, 29% not engaged, and 21% actively disengaged (Gallup, 2015).

Failing to discover what field(s) they want to pursue during secondary school, most students are lost when it comes to applying for a specific course at university, let alone deciding what they want to do as a career. This means many will coast through university before being forced to work in a job they are unhappy doing. A Gallup 2014 poll showed that less than one-third (31.5%) of U.S. workers were engaged in their jobs, a majority of employees, 51%, were “not engaged” and 17.5% were “actively disengaged” (Adkins, 2014).

The way to inspire passion, allow each student to achieve their potential, reduce costs, and prepare students for the workforce is online learning. Online learning platforms and content are: inexpensive to create, at only $70,000 per course (Economist, 2014); infinitely scalable; offer world-class resources; allow each learner to move at their own pace; and provide explanations in personalised ways. An online learning platform can utilize all of these advantages and make the provision of an unlimited range of courses possible, which students can progress through enabling them to both discover and pursue their passions.

My vision is to have physical schools where social interaction, discussion, and exposure to diversity occur, but where each student would work and learn independently through an online platform. This would allow teachers to use their talents in addressing the needs of each student rather than trying to control a disengaged classroom and repeat the same syllabus every year, as currently occurs (Clayton M. Christensen, 2010). These teachers would also act as guidance counsellors to ensure students are on track with their personal learning, lead regular debates/discussions with groups of students to stimulate further deeper learning, and teach the students more general life skills such as how to effectively communicate and collaborate.

This school system also involves the replacement of public examinations with assessing students by observing how far they have progressed through the field(s) they are learning about. The current education system uses a fixed time schedule when teaching material and, as a result, produces a variable output in the amount actually learnt by different students which is then measured by an assessment at the end (the public examinations). Online learning allows each student to learn at their own pace and spend a variable amount of time progressing through the content with a fixed output of perfect understanding. This method can use regularly paced assessments and require students to master material to progress to the next level. Therefore, an employer or university only needs to see how far a student has progressed through blocks of material to know the extent of their knowledge.

By using this disruptive new model of education and solving the “passion problem” students will feel successful, engaged, and work harder with intrinsic motivation than they ever otherwise would, ultimately allowing them to achieve their true potential.


Adkins, A., 2014. Majority of U.S. Employees Not Engaged Despite Gains in 2014. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 20 April 2016].

Bank, L., 2015. Private school fees rise by 20% since 2010. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 20 April 2016].

Brenneman, R., 2016. Gallup Student Poll Finds Engagement in School Dropping by Grade Level. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 20 April 2016].

Cambridge, 2016. Cambridge Medicine: Entry Requirements. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 25 April 2016].

Clayton M. Christensen, C. W. J. M. B. H., 2010. Disrupting Class — How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. 2nd ed. s.l.:McGraw-Hill Professional.

Economist, 2014. The future of universities — the digital degree. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 21 April 2016].

Gallup, 2015. 2015 GALLUP STUDENT POLL — OVERALL REPORT. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 20 April 2016].

Osborne, C. B. F. a. M. A., 2013. THE FUTURE OF EMPLOYMENT: HOW SUSCEPTIBLE ARE JOBS TO COMPUTERISATION?. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 April 2016].

Thornburgh, N., 2006. Dropout Nation. [Online] Available at:,8816,1181646,00.html [Accessed 30 April 2016].