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How Schools Can Move From Place-Based to Passion-Led Education

At the start of the 2020 school year, Dan Jennings, the technology, data, and testing Coordinator of Hagerman Municipal Schools, a small, rural school district in New Mexico, faced a problem: with no return to in-person schooling on the horizon, students weren’t completing their work.

“There’s something about being physically with students that makes it easier to get the kids to do their work,” Jennings said. 

He knew that elective classes, when tied to students’ interests, have a powerful, positive impact on student motivation. And they needed motivation more than ever. At the same time, the district’s small size meant it could not afford to hire enough teachers to match the interests of their students in elective classes.

Interest-based learning

Jennings turned to Outschool — an innovative online platform with 100,000+ small-group, expert-led classes for kids ages 3-18 — to offer students the chance to take classes of their choice as an incentive for staying on track with their work. 

“I said, ‘Kids, if you’re on track, you can explore this menu of really cool topics,’” Jennings said. 

With this, Jennings essentially dissolved the boundaries of Hagerman Municipal Schools by allowing students to follow their passions wherever they may lead. For some, those passions have led to taking Outschool classes on coding, ukulele, yoga, and cooking, taught by expert teachers halfway across the country. For others, their passions inspire their choice of academic-focused classes for extra support, like chemistry through the potions and spells of Harry Potter.

“We told the kids, ‘You pick the class, we’ll work your schedule out. Go play in the playground of learning,” Jennings said. 

Where some schools saw only the loss of in-person learning, Jennings saw the opportunity for learning that was not just anytime, anywhere, but that could also be taught by anyone, even if they didn’t teach in his small district.

Students power their learning

And then there’s Sora Schools, a fully-accredited virtual high school, whose entire philosophy is to rewrite the rules of modern education and give students choice in how they learn and demonstrate their knowledge. “We know so much more about education and motivation than we did when today’s education system was conceptualized,” said co-founder Garrett Smiley. 

Sora Schools is centered on flexibility, allowing students to take the driver’s seat in their learning. “We offer choice and let students drive their own learning based on their interests. They can study ocean conservation, learn about Victorian-era fashion, or anything that piques their curiosity. It is only because we are fully virtual that we can actually fully follow student inquiry,” says head of school Wesley Samples. 

Sora was already free from the confines of place, but they were restricted in their course offerings by the teachers they had on staff. To fully support students in making choices about what they learned, Sora needed a way to provide students with more opportunities to discover new interests and pursue their passions. Outschool offered a way to do that easily by offering Sora Schools students access to classes of their choice that help them work towards mastery or just explore a new topic not taught by anyone on the Sora Schools team.

When Garrett thinks about innovation and the future of K-12 education, he sees marketplaces like Outschool at the center. 

“Outschool helps students get the breadth you’d expect in high school and virtually infinite differentiation,” Garrett said. “No single school or even networked school can compete with the resources and access of a marketplace like Outschool. If we want our kids to learn and be prepared to face increasingly complex problems, we need to think about learning differently,” he said. 

For the innovative Sora Schools, this notion of learning means a fully remote community where student interest drives learning outcomes through platforms like Outschool.

This article has been paid for by Outschool.

Outschool, Fast Company’s #1 Most Innovative Company in Education in 2021, is an innovative marketplace of high-quality, live, small-group classes for students ages 3-18. We help schools and districts significantly expand their elective course catalog and academic support capacity. Learn more about Outschool’s partnerships with schools and districts at

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