The Interest-Based Learning Coach: Author Q&A
The Interest-Based Learning Coach: Author Q&A
PUBLISHED: Thursday, May 21, 2020 by Andilynn Feddeler

Many educators appreciate the value of interest-based learning, but struggle with the management and facilitation of individual and small-group projects in a limited space and time allocation. The Interest-Based Learning Coach features a step-by-step plan for managing Genius Hour, passion projects, Makerspaces, and more, and supports students’ intrinsic motivation for learning, agency, voice, and problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Learn more about the book’s systematic and practical approach to interest-based learning in this interview with the authors, Jeanne H. Purcell, Ph.D., Deborah E. Burns, Ph.D., and Wellesley H. Purcell. 

Q: How did you develop the eight-step interest-based learning process? 

A: There is no magic to the eight-step process; it didn’t magically materialize from thin air. Rather, it emerged over years of teaching practice with interest-based projects, reflecting on project successes and challenges, and searching for commonalities across various students’ and grade levels’ projects. It also emerged from a continual negotiation process with thousands of students from highest achieving to special needs, K–20. Our ideas about the process transformed and refined themselves every time we sought to honor student interests, thereby keeping our learners at the center of curriculum and instruction. And what an exciting and heartening journey it has been! 

And, as we look back on our combined years of experience with interest-based learning (IBL), the eight-step process is pretty straightforward. We think that you will agree with us that to incorporate learners’ interests, you first have to help young people find and identify potential interest areas (Step 1), and then focus the interests (Step 2) because students will be “all over the map,” so to speak. Then, to properly ensure that students move forward successfully, one has to help them articulate a research/creation plan (Step 3), followed by supporting their actual researching/designing with resources (Steps 4–5). Once the research is underway, a likely product emerges from the continuing dialogues with the students (Step 6). And often, the product that is collaboratively decided upon by the teacher and students will suggest a prospective real-world audience (Step 7). No learning journey would be complete without reflection on what went well, what could be changed next time to be better, and celebrating the accomplishments (Step 8). 

Equally important, we recognized that there was more to success than just the eight-step process at the heart of interest-based learning. Thus, we added to the text all of the other ancillary pieces that are CRITICAL to a successful initiative: establishing the prerequisites, creating the shared vision, and thinking through the assessment process. Without all of those elements successfully in place beforehand, the interest-based learning initiative may end prematurely. 

This is not to say that the eight steps are a fixed process. Some users may add steps; others may eliminate some. The details of the process depends on the teacher and their students’ needs. 

Q: How is The Interest-Based Learning Coach different from the other books about Makerspaces, Genius Hour, etc?

A: As we note in the early sections of The Interest-Based Learning Coach, our goal in writing this book was not to compare and contrast models such as Makerspaces, Genius Hour, and Passion Projects. Nor did we want to write a book that explains each of their respective philosophies and visions or advocate for one model over another. We strongly endorse these models and believe that each of them champions different formats and structures for supporting students’ interests. And we are also very well aware of the fact that there are already numerous books about these models and their missions. 

Instead, The Interest-Based Learning Coach suggests and provides a process and set of tools and templates that can be used to organize students’ interest-based projects regardless of the chosen model. Just as a carpenter uses their tools to build many different kinds of woodworking projects, so too can the steps and tools in our book be used to support the organization, effectiveness, and efficiency of students’ project-based learning regardless of the model used by the teacher or school. 

Q: How can individual and small-group projects be more beneficial to students than other methods of learning? 

A: First and foremost, there are dozens of short-term grouping strategies from which teachers can choose (e.g., homogeneous grouping by skills or prior knowledge, think-pair-share, heterogeneous grouping, and cooperative learning). Most important, however, is that decisions about grouping should be based on content goals and the unique needs of students. Thus, we don’t believe one form of grouping is better than another; all are equally as robust if chosen purposefully and designed and monitored with care. In fact, we believe that we should constantly be using a variety of grouping practices over time in our classrooms. 

With that said, there is clearly a rationale for interest-based small groups, especially now. For too long, students’ voices have not been heard—silenced, even—in this time of standards and state and national testing. Interest-based grouping strategies, such as those used in IBL, provide students with voice, can increase their sense of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), put them squarely into their zone of proximal development (ZPD; Vygotsky 1978), increase their motivation and self-determination, and lead to lifelong interests, even avocations, across the lifespan. This is quite a powerful and sought-after list of benefits! 

Q: Why is it important for students to incorporate their personal interests into their schoolwork?

A: Our professional literature offers many books and articles that stress the power and value of student agency and a growth mindset as precursors for self-actualization, achievement, and academic growth. Most teachers also yearn for classrooms filled with motivated students who are wholeheartedly engaged in their learning. Yet most of us realize that if we want to enhance student motivation and engagement, we have to do more than provide our learners with a safe and respectful learning environment. Many students also need more than research-based teaching strategies to garner their deep and abiding attention. 

To grow intrinsic motivation for learning, we need to begin with the extrinsic satisfaction that comes from working on our own questions, interests, and projects. Although we may not be able to incorporate interest-based learning projects across all hours of the school day, these projects can jumpstart student engagement and provide our learners with a compelling reason to become deeply involved in their own learning. Such involvement has the power to change students’ attitudes toward school, as well as their perceptions about their own capacity for learning and growth. 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your work?

A: As you are aware, we are three authors. Although we share many similar experiences and interests, there are differences among us. 


  1. I want readers to realize that our kids can think, but that their thinking may not yet be as organized, analytic, or as creative as it will be after they experience a dozen or so interest-based projects. I want teachers to understand that part of our job, in fact 95% of our job as teachers, is to teach our students how to think like practitioners and experts of content areas (e.g., English, history, math, arts, science), and show them how these content areas intersect with their lives. 

  2. I want readers to realize that it is okay—even necessary—to give up some of the control. You will still be the coach and facilitator to every student. Think of yourself as the driver’s education teacher, not behind the wheel, but making sure that the car and the driver are safe and going in the right direction. 

  3. You do not have to be an expert on students’ passions or interests. “How can I coach something if I am not an expert?” you ask. Teachers in IBL classrooms have a critical job to guide and support the process, a set of skills you have already developed. Our new role in the IBL classroom is to support the interest-based learning journey with students and witness the individual and small-group blossoming that will occur in our classrooms. 

  4. Interest-based learning does not wander from or negate the importance of our standards. Our expertise and responsibility lie in the skill sets that we teach, and we can teach those skills with any content presented to us, provided we present the guidelines to the students in the form of standards. An argument essay on animal testing uses the same techniques as an argument about gun control. Examining the causes of World War II uses the same skill sets as examining the social and political climate preceding the Civil Rights Movement. 

  5. Finally, my last hoped-for takeaway is that readers realize that interest-based learning is as flexible as you want it to be. Use it as enrichment or use it to get buy-in. Use it to teach the standards or use it to support them. At the end of the day, everyone is still doing what they need to do and, hopefully, enjoying it at the same time. 

Deb and Jeanne: We hope that readers will walk away from reading The Interest-Based Learning Coach with a renewed sense of enthusiasm for what is possible. Students can, indeed, have a voice in the curriculum. The joint ownership of learning that will ensue will reap many benefits and bring a renewed sense of joy to teachers, students, the classroom, the school, and the community. IBL is a gift that keeps on giving to all key stakeholders. 


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper and Row.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Harvard University Press.

Jeanne H. Purcell, Ph.D., Deborah E. Burns, Ph.D., and Wellesley H. Purcell are Connecticut educators committed to student-centered learning and best practices teaching. Together, they share more than 90 years of teaching and administrative experience in a variety of K–20 public and private school settings. Their previous publications have focused on differentiation strategies, case studies, and enrichment education.