How PBL Can Fulfill Its Promise to 21st Century Students

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Project based learning, the rising star in the educational firmament, is on the lips of nearly every teacher and district in the U.S. and in many countries abroad. A newly recruited army of PBL experts march to the front of professional development workshops, evangelizing for project-based work and selling the notion that this is what 21st Century education looks like.

But we’re not there yet. PBL has not yet fulfilled its potential to liberate the deep, inventive intelligence inherent in children and crucial to mastering the skills and attitudes that carry an adult through today’s world. In fact, unless we move on, PBL will plateau.

This state of affairs is not due to a shoddy product. In fact, a field-tested, solid set of best methods and teaching practices now inform PBL, and a consensus is forming around ‘high-quality’ PBL. The what of PBL is well-defined.

So, what’s missing? It’s the how of PBL. When done well, PBL is lot like a good novel: It changes a young person’s perspective on life. But the secret sauce is not the method; it’s the set of attitudes, beliefs, and skills that a teacher brings to PBL’s process of investigation, collaboration, and synthesis. To support the relationship driven, personalized, person-focused education necessary to tap the inner life of today’s students, PBL must be rooted in fresh thinking about human performance, design and creativity, collective intelligence, core knowledge, and the symbiosis between innovative schooling and societal needs.

While discarding an industrial-era mindset is critical for all educators, a good PBL teacher inevitably tangles with the assumptions that underlie the entire enterprise of modern education.  PBL teachers guide, not teach. They listen and observe more than they talk. They are extremely curious about their students, and value diverse expression. They plan for outcomes, but approach a project with a flexible touch that allows for unforeseen results. They respect knowledge, but the end goal is not the test; the primary goal is to form the deep intellectual bond with students that leads to a mutual appreciation for learning.

Successful PBL teachers need to build this flexible, innovative mindset into the heart of every project. That’s when the method gets results. A few critical insights can move more PBL teachers in this direction:

Recognize Why PBL ExistsPBL exists because content acquisition and testing, as we have known it, is done. PBL is designed to teach skills and attitude, not content. That’s a bitter pill, because PBL advocates have spent a decade in a rear-guard effort to convince other educators that students can learn important stuff through projects. But PBL helps students learn a new form of content that encompasses core knowledge, appreciation of concepts, skillful application, ability to inquire further, and reflective self-direction. Essentially, PBL is a response to the changed nature of the world.

It’s Not a Thing, It’s a Design Process. “I’m doing a PBL,” say many teachers. No, not really.  PBL may be a noun and projects can be based on a unit of instruction, but it’s a process of discovery driven by design principles. This may seem like a nit-pick, but the mental model matters. Freeing students from the 19th century box of units, linear instruction, and regurgitating known solutions and answers and holding PBL in the mind as a learning experience encourages the kind of openness that spurs the innovative problem solving essential to getting at those deeper levels of mastery to which we give endless lip service: Critical thinking and creativity.

Teach to the Iceberg. PBL will bloom when PBL teachers define intelligence as psychologists do today: As behaviors that matter in today’s world.  Which behaviors matter most? Empathy, curiosity, openness, and resiliency top the list. These behaviors form the foundation for mastering 21st Century skills. They are iceberg traits, hidden from easy view and unreachable through testing, but elicited through well-designed, challenging projects that allow for student expression, offer opportunity for creativity, reward the persistence of deep intellectual work, force critical thinking, and operationalize the growth mindset. This shift includes accepting that intelligence is a whole-body exercise in which emotions and cognition blend into a coherent pattern of behavior, letting go of outdated views on social-emotional learning versus academic learning, and questioning neuromyths such as learning stylesmultiple intelligences, and ‘brain based’ learning.

Stop Thinking of a Teacher as a Teacher. 500 years ago, theologians stood at the lectern and shared ‘nearer to God’ content with neophytes. That stereotype clings to the teaching profession, which still focuses on instructional delivery, classroom management, and pacing guides because that’s what teachers do. There is still room for this approach, but we refuse to see what teaching has become: A facilitative profession in which the skills of mentorship, diagnosis, designing, and assessing the deeper aspects of human performance are critical. This is especially true of PBL, which relies on a culture of care and a sincere bond between teacher and student to fuel and support the personalized process of self-motivation and curious investigation that ignites and excites a student.

Personalize and Differentiate PBL. Thinking of PBL as a designed learning experience allows us to connect design thinking, maker spaces, inquiry-based learning, personalized learning, and other forward-leaning ideas into the grand unified theory that will serve as the template for 21st Century education. The tenets of PBL—a challenging problem, collaborative inquiry, a design and draft and revise process, and a public sharing of learning—provide a fine structure for any investigative process, whether a project on Shakespeare or an engineering problem. PBL can move forward by becoming a flexible design process applied and personalized for audience and subject, whether a case-based PBL focused on helping students become workforce ready, a science-focused PBL that prepares students for the deep analysis on Advanced Placement exams, or a global studies PBL centered on research and solutions to pressing issues.

Choose Challenge Before Standards. PBL is a powerful educational model that helps young people master problem solving in a global society desperately in need of solutions. But the power drains out of PBL when standards become more important than the challenge of engaging real issues with real conviction with real consequences. That’s the true impetus behind successful projects. A good PBL teacher pays attention to standards, but never lets them decide the project. It’s far more important to reach for the stars.

Treat PBL as a Start Up, Not a Teaching Method

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A few years back, I worked with many schools across the country that became enamored with project based learning after site visits to PBL icons such as High Tech High or had sent a team of administrators to a PBL conference—and returned with wide-eyed enthusiasm for reinventing education at their school. Mostly, it didn’t happen. After an initial surge, daily classroom routines returned to normal, with a few projects scattered here and there.

Unfortunately, this pattern continues today—and there is a simple reason behind the failure to thrive: Educators continue to treat PBL as just another teaching strategy. Inoculate teachers with a three day PBL workshop. Show them how PBL works. Send them into the classroom. Celebrate a few projects. Change the culture slightly. Return to home base.

If startup companies adopted this approach, Uber wouldn’t be replacing taxis and Airbnb wouldn’t be threatening the hotel business. Startup companies these days are looking to revolutionize, not incrementalize. They intend to change the paradigm, shift the mindset, or overturn the status quo—whichever metaphor you prefer.

That scope of change demands an innovative, strategic, systemic approach that schools generally lack—and that’s the downfall of PBL. Initiating PBL school-wide or district wide requires starting with a vision and breaking that vision down into a dense, rich conversation about change in virtually every aspect of a school, from the assessment system to the use of time to the kinds of conversations teachers have in the staff room. As a teacher in Maryland once said to me when I pitched the importance of assessing 21st Century skills in a project, “We can’t do that,” she objected sharply, “There’s no place in the grade book for that.”

She was right, and it’s a change that needs to be anticipated. It’s not necessary that these changes have to happen at once, or at the beginning of the journey; it is essential to know that systematic change brings predictable challenges. That’s the purpose of a strategic plan: The challenges don’t surprise and are simply part of the landscape.

How would I start? Based on my experience in helping schools develop successful, sustainable PBL programs, I see the following five steps as critical:

Get help before the journey. A startup sometimes starts in a garage, but more often the founders get advice from experts. Business consultants are a common commodity in the commercial world, but there is no comparable position in education, particularly in PBL. Spend some money on strategic discussions and planning with an expert—and save thousands of dollars and occasionally years of lost time.

Lay out tasks and timelines. The journey to success isn’t a mystery; it just takes time identify the complexity of the change, the necessary steps, the culture and personalities to be affected, and the milestones along the way. Teachers do quite well when they know there is time to make the necessary adjustments in a school. It’s uncertainty that creates resistance to change.

Ramp up the PD time. I once presented a one day PBL workshop in a well-regarded district on the day prior to the opening of a high school that had announced itself to parents and students as a new ‘STEM/PBL school.’ To repeat: One day of training to reinvent a school. The advice here: If you don’t have the time or funds to train, don’t do PBL. Just keep on doing conventional education and make it the best you can.

Make the first month count. When PBL launches, it can’t fall back to ground immediately; it needs to go airborne. A solid start makes teachers and students more enthused, while a poor start reinforces all their fears. This is as true of students as teachers. We may believe PBL is good for students, but they need to be convinced and trained. This where strategic planning enters: For example, if you’re starting PBL with 9th graders, look at their feeder school experience. Are they ready for PBL or more used to listening and taking notes?

Build in continuous learning. The strategic plan always anticipates failure and rough periods—and they will happen in PBL. The good news is that poorly designed projects still work to some degree; often, students enjoy them, even if the learning is uneven. But the key is planning to get better. Have teachers practice protocols and learn to analyze projects from a design standpoint. Require grade level or staff debriefs of projects. Bring in students to staff meetings to describe their project experience. Use staff-wide observation and expertise to help each individual teacher get better. That’s how to build a PBL PLC that, in time, takes on a life of its own and embeds PBL in your school.

Teacher Robots Show Promise for Education

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By Thom Markham

FN News Group

In a move cheered by education advocates for standardized learning, education officials somewhere announced today that the robotics revolution has finally reached the classroom. In numerous districts across the U.S., teachers will be replaced by highly programmed robots capable of delivering core content and dense packets of fact-based information to inquisitive students.

“Today we are finally unleashing the power of technology to prepare the next generation of Americans for work and life in the 21st Century,” said one expert, citing other experts. “Our country is dependent on the ability of our young people to regurgitate information that allows them to excel on tests. Robots are the perfect vehicle to deliver a seamless, question less curriculum that maximizes short term retention.”

Experts reviewing the work of other experts agreed. “Eventually, students will be able to link their smart devices to robots through summer vacation,” one remarked, “This should completely alleviate the problem of summer learning loss.”

Not all educators agree with this approach. Arguing that robotic teaching ignores the need for inquiry and project based learning to meet the needs of diverse learners and stimulate critical thinking, many critics point to key areas in which robots cannot match the skills of a human teacher. “How can a robot soothe a 2nd grader who’s having a bad day?” asked one veteran elementary teacher. During layoff meetings and at staff meetings that have turned angry and bitter at times, technologists have responded that logarithms are improving at exponential speed. “I am confident that by next year, we will have a functional robot capable of identifying with 100% accuracy students with hoodies over their head who are asleep in the back row,” said one spokesperson from EyesAtTheBackOfMyHead, one of many startup firms anxious to enter the growing EdTech market.

The critical area of concern for human teachers is the ability of robotic teachers to respond to student questions. Early robot prototypes lent weight to this argument, as robots proved unable to answer simple questions like, “Is this fake news or true?” Long considered a staple of quality education, many human teachers have pushed for more questions, not fewer, in 21st Century classrooms. “How will kids know the motivation of Atticus Finch if they can’t ask?” complained one union representative, citing a character in To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel read in every 9th grade English classroom in America for the last 50 years. The founder of PBL Global, a strong supporter of project based learning, supported this view. “We need a curriculum designed around questions,” he said, “Even if we have to make fun of education to accomplish it.”

The debate is not likely to be settled soon. Detractors have launched a new advocacy group, Let Us Teach!, while venture capital continues to flow to the teacher robot industry, whose leaders are confident that technology will win the day. “Okay, so we won’t be able to design robots that can lead a Socratic Seminar,” admitted one CEO, who just turned 23 and claims himself as a proud product of standardized testing, “But we’ll save taxpayers a lot of money.”

What is ‘High Quality’ PBL?

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“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

–        Friedrich Nietzsche

This may be the first time in history that Nietzsche’s philosophy has been applied to Project Based Learning (PBL), but it’s a perfect starting point for discussing a topic on the minds of educational leaders and PBL practitioners these days: How do we define ‘high quality’ PBL?

There’s a sense of desperation around this task. The 500-year old model of learning is burned into our DNA by now, and it’s easy to picture rows of students taking notes, listening to a lecture, reading a textbook, and bending over an exam with furrowed brow and pencil in hand. But as PBL has grown in popularity and emerged as the chief learning mode for 21st century education, no similar shared mental model has emerged that can easily be translated into instruction, training, and teacher evaluation. As one Principal noted, “I have no idea what to look for when I come into a classroom where a project is happening. It just looks like chaos.”

In that statement lies the first clue to the challenge of defining high quality PBL: Every project looks slightly different. Precisely because PBL mirrors the chaos inherent in open-ended decision making and problem solving around authentic issues across a vast terrain of potential subjects, it’s hard to categorize and the process is inherently messy.

Because of a deep need to train more PBL teachers, replicate good projects, and advance PBL as a coherent teaching practice, the untidiness does not satisfy educators. It’s definitely time to move forward on developing a shared mental model and set of best practices that distinguish quality PBL from old-style projects or much of the sub-standard PBL taking place in classrooms today.

Partly, this task is well underway through organizations like the Buck Institute for Education or PBL Global, which feature a field-tested set of tools and design principles that lead to quality projects. The principles outline a planning and design sequence that enables teachers to put together a coherent plan for a project, including setting an authentic challenge, crafting a driving question, forming student teams, encouraging student voice, inserting peer collaboration and design thinking into the process, requiring public products or an exhibition of learning, and building solid formative and summative assessments into the project design.

There is good news on this front. Compared to a short five years ago, many more teachers are familiar with PBL best practices. That’s led to better quality projects. But many of those projects still do not lead to deeper learning. To achieve that goal, the real work lies ahead, and involves a more difficult mind shift. For a very long time, it’s been assumed that any teacher can be given a curriculum, a set of materials, a pacing guide, and enough training—and succeed. In a traditional classroom focused on content delivery, this was possible. But we’re no longer dealing with a linear environment and straightforward delivery and recall.

The great realization is this: PBL is not Geometry. PBL relies on a design process, which can’t be captured in the same concrete way that a traditional lesson plan can be described. The best design leads to a learning experience in which students draw upon knowledge, skills, and strengths to navigate a through a problem, decide a course of action, and offer evidence for their conclusion. Content is vital, but thinking is the ultimate objective.

This is the second clue to defining high quality PBL. Providing a list of PBL methods and best practices, no matter how clever the graphics or inventive the terms or high-sounding the label, will never suffice for training teachers to create a powerful project experience for students. No teacher can take the list of methods off the shelf and put them to work across the curriculum. Designing a project is an interpretative act filtered through the sensibility, knowledge, and experience of the teacher. In fact, turning a teacher into a designer, as PBL requires, inevitably places the teacher back at the center of learning. The ability to deliver content is replaced by a teacher’s professional, and even personal, ability to assemble the many moving parts of PBL into a coherent, deeper learning experience.

This is not an entirely happy situation because it disrupts well entrenched ideas about how teachers become trained and ready for a 21st Century classroom. Just as PBL and inquiry has begun to affect traditional notions of ‘academic rigor’ for students, it does the same for defining a teacher’s ‘rigorous’ skill set. Teachers have already begun to respond to this new reality by rejecting traditional professional development and embracing more peer-driven, personalized, just-in-time learning through personal learning networks, social media, or on demand courses.

Thus, the final clue: The approach to high quality PBL must be asymmetric, blending methods, personal skill set, authentic experience and feedback from the classroom, and a strategic sense of design and judgment into a holistic vision of the capable PBL teacher. Teaching PBL methods is the starting point, but more critical is the underlying skill set that drives the process and makes the methods come alive, such as mastering the fundamental techniques of an inquiry-based classroom, knowing how to redefine rigor by integrating inquiry, standards, and student voice, learning to coach and mentor, tracking and supporting social-emotional strengths, knowing how to teach and assess 21st Century skills, teaching design thinking and encouraging innovation, and knowing how to meld a formal curriculum with authentic tasks and assessment.

None of these sub skills come easily, by the way, and all require a highly professional, mature personality that can handle complexity, choice, and collaborative growth. That’s the real challenge for high quality PBL. Can we recruit and train enough teachers of this caliber to take us successfully through the 21st Century?

How to Coach PBL Teachers to Succeed

As PBL continues its trajectory toward becoming the majority method of instruction, another job not yet invented will come to the fore: The PBL Coach.

In some form, this job exists now.  But the position is filled primarily by teachers who succeeded at PBL in their classroom or instructional coaches recruited from traditional classrooms who lack experience with PBL itself. Both approaches are largely ineffective. Grafting traditional lesson planning onto the PBL design process is impossible, and creating successful projects as a teacher requires skills of analysis quite different from coaching novice teachers to do the same.

In effect, schools generally lack a team of middle managers with an identified skill set to provide solid coaching to PBL teachers. As PBL moves forward, this gap will become more noticeable. Rather than fill the gap by offering more workshops for teachers, a more efficient and affordable route is to develop a trained cadre of coaches.

What basic requirements enable a coach to do the job well? Most fundamental for any PBL coach is to ‘think like a designer.’ A project is an extended learning experience planned through a process of vision, ideation, prototyping, and testing. Rather than a linear exercise, PBL relies on a holistic design process in which many variables mesh to create the authentic, unique flavor of a project. Unlike lesson plans, finding exact exemplars to copy is near impossible. Plus, the metrics and outcomes are different, and knowing if the project will ‘succeed’ is difficult. With that mindset established, coaches can maximize their impact by using a nine-step coaching protocol to help co-create powerful, high quality projects:

Start with empathy. Effective coaching always begins with empathy, but it’s critical for the mind meld necessary for collegial project design. First, every project is new and different—and it simply takes time to get traction on the planning process. The early stages of planning can drag, stall, and take wrong turns, making principals and coaches often feel impatient about wasted time. Second, it is empathy that fuels the design process itself. Unless coaches approach teachers with the respect, humility, and open mind that establishes the trustful relationship and deep conversation necessary for the project to unfold through ‘uncovering’ and thoughtful probing, teachers end up rushing the design process and planning mediocre projects.

Be a great listener. Again, a trained coach follows proven protocols: Good eye contact, sincere listening, and a willingness to engage in appreciative inquiry into a challenging task. In the beginning stages, true listening rather than ‘waiting to respond’ is key. It is amazing how many teachers harbor deep ideas than can be turned into terrific projects. But it’s not easy to articulate these ideas; it takes a sharp listener to recognize and surface good ideas. One key is to trust that this vision exists somewhere in the planner’s mind—and the coach’s job is to help discover it.

Seek the True North. As the conversation proceeds, eventually teachers will reveal not only the clues to their deeper intentions, but the core idea that is driving them in the project. A good coach probes for this. I call this the true north, the one or two sentence descriptor that captures what a teacher wants students to appreciate and learn by the end of the project. Surfacing the true north comes through asking reflective questions as the vision emerges. How will your students act at the end of the project? What will they realize? How will it change them? What do you really want them to know and do?

Crystallize the idea. Once the true north comes clear, it’s time to shape the project by honing in on the exact goal. I’ll offer a recent example: A teacher wanted to design a science project around waves of energy, and her true north was clear: She wanted students to appreciate the fact that energy waves drive modern technology, and she expected them to learn the basic science of waves. But beyond that point the project was unclear. For a coach, that’s the perfect time to jump to the end of the project and discuss potential student products. A museum exhibit? A future product that uses wave technology? A marketing and information piece that educates the public about the science of waves?

Refine the DQ. Unfortunately, many projects hang on a mediocre Driving Question that does not drive deeper learning or capture the authentic challenge. For example, in the above project on energy waves, the teacher suggested this question: “How can we learn about the importance of energy waves?” The answer is simple: Read books, listen to a lecture, or watch a You Tube video. Why so simple? Because it’s not the real question to be answered, which in the end was: “How do we, as fourth graders, educate an adult audience about the science that makes our modern devices work?” That’s the authentic, demanding challenge, not the least because few adults know how their devices work. A tip for coaches: To test the Driving Question, ask What is the problem to be solved?

Require PBL best practices. High quality PBL distinguishes projects from project based learning, meaning the design always includes a Driving Question, public sharing of products, teamwork and collaboration (whether teams or cohorts), iterative design and draft opportunities, and performance rubrics for 21st century skills. These are not optional; they are proven pieces of the process that work together to bring coherence and clarity to a project. A good coach does not let a PBL project backslide into an ordinary project by omitting key best practices.

Add power to the project. Once the framework is established, a coach should focus on the middle of a project. Many PBL teachers default to traditional teaching practices (which may be fine – see the comments below). But coaches should insist on student-focused processes here. When and how will student teams share drafts and prototypes? How will they learn feedback protocols? How will they improve their products so the teachers see the best work at the end? A key guideline here: Think engineering process, even if it’s a social studies project.

Be flexible about PBL. A team of coaches asked me recently: How do we help K -3 teachers design projects so that students learn basic math and reading skills? A good coaching response: Teach math and reading. Knowing when to include direct instruction and traditional teaching methods is a necessary part of the designer’s role. Teachers know how to teach certain skills and knowledge necessary for students—and PBL is not the answer to every learning need. Also, if teachers are besieged by testing and need to include content-based instruction as part of PBL, give them permission. We do not yet have the luxury of purity.

Use a Solid Planning Form or Design Guide. Perhaps it’s obvious, but the plan must be committed to paper or captured digitally. The advantage of a comprehensive design form is that it forces a teacher-designer to examine all aspects of the design, including remembering to address key standards. So, the main tip for coaches: Don’t settle for a simple project ‘capture’ form to provide a thumbnail of a project. That’s a recipe for a project with a lot of holes.

The Innovation to Drive Innovation: Scaling Inquiry

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After watching her deeply engaged students and teachers gather in celebration after an inspiring project showcase last fall, a proud elementary school Principal—the new head of a school that had underperformed for years—exclaimed to me: “Every teacher needs to learn how to do this!” In another school, a 6th grade science teacher related how multiples of students voluntarily confided that this kind of learning had changed their lives. “These are middle schoolers telling me they now love school,” the teacher said, raising her eyebrows and smiling.

By this, the Principal and the teacher both meant project based learning, a term that stands on its own but draws its success from a deep subset of practices including inquiry, personalization, design thinking, social-emotional growth, and 21st Century skills instruction. When combined into a seamless learning experience and done well, students discover the fruits of a creative journey that leads to innovation and deeper learning. A kind of magic occurs.

Unfortunately, we haven’t yet bottled the magic. PBL is experiencing a steep rise but the bulk of educators let anecdotes like the above slide over the psyche. “Well, that’s nice,” they’re thinking, “but I don’t teach special kids, it won’t work at my school, and I have too much testing to consider.”

But they’re wrong. This kind of magic can be replicated. In fact, it’s no longer a choice: The ‘new normal’ sweeping across the globe will force education to take PBL to scale. Beyond the decline of tolerance—already testing educators through instances of bullying and racial animosity—a deeply troubling shift is visible that challenges conventional educators by striking at the very heart of learning: Facts have lost force, fake news rises, and reason seems obsolete.

Recall of content and teacher-directed outcomes won’t suffice. Neither will the usual bromides of teaching ‘21st Century skills’ and ‘critical thinking’ make the necessary difference. Leadership experts distinguish technical solutions versus adaptive thinking. Technical solutions to our dilemma abound, such as doubling down on critical thinking or media literacy, or introducing ‘civic online reasoning’ as a subject. But adaptive thinking starts with admitting system failure. That means agreeing that the present curriculum lacks the power to contend with the fresh circumstances of global world 2.0.

Instead, the times mandate a mission-critical, put-a-man-on-the-moon type breakthrough plan that intentionally aims at creating a mass-market generation of capable problem solvers, deeper learners, and innovators by establishing a new mental model of a 21st Century teacher that revolves around project based and inquiry-based expertise. How can this happen? Let’s commit to innovative thinking:

The Mind Shift: Agree that 21st Century Teaching is One Thing. Several years ago, in the preface to my PBL Design and Coaching Guide, I termed project based learning a ‘bridge just far enough’, meaning PBL would serve to take us into the next evolutionary stage of education. We’re getting closer to that reality, but project based learning, problem based learning, place-based learning, inquiry, personalization, competency-based instruction, design thinking, 21st century skills, blended learning, maker education, and others have begun to compete. This fragmentation is self-defeating. Each is just a slightly different means to the same end, which is to challenge students to become creative, purposeful problem solvers within a more personalized system. Our first goal should be to envision every 21st century teacher as conversant in all the above aspects of learning.

The Challenge: Define the Skill Set.  Student-centered, personalized, inquiry-based learning requires a teacher-centered skill set that goes far beyond normal lesson planning, strategies, and conventional descriptions of a teacher’s role, but where has the skill set necessary to fuel the process of inquiry and problem solving been identified? It’s imperative to define the core skills necessary skills for the job, including culture-building, establishing close relationships and safe spaces; redefining rigor by blending mastery, inquiry, standards, and high performance; being a coach and mentor; knowing PBL best practices and methods; identifying, honoring, and supporting individual personal strengths; knowing how to give feedback on skills affected by individual talent and personality, such as communication and collaboration; showing intellectual depth by filtering and adapting core content to the needs of the students; admiring, appreciating, and focusing on authentic learning that connects the classroom to the world; and possessing a forward-leaning, optimistic outlook that inspires creativity. In other words: Stop relying on vague references to the ‘guide on the side’ and start identifying and training for key competencies.

The Innovation: Go from Work to Web, and Web to Work. Now to the heart of the solution: How do we train enough teachers? Getting rid of one-off workshops, embracing professional collaboration; and making professional learning an ongoing endeavor for teachers is overdue and welcome, but in truth merely a portal for what’s coming: Personalized, digital, professional learning. Increasingly, this trend is visible, as more teachers participate through media in the emerging global conversation around inquiry.

But taking inquiry to scale is more complex than sharing lesson plans or instructional strategies. And to get to sufficient numbers, we’ll need to overcome three challenges:

  • Teachers must be encouraged, expected, and incentivized to let go of an industrial self-image as recipients of learning and reinvent themselves as self-motivated co-learners—just like the students.
  • Blogs, tweets, MOOC’s, webinars, and simple downloads will not suffice for inquiry-based teaching, which relies on close human interaction. The online experience must be redefined as a rich, collaborative experience so that teachers routinely use digital tools to improve their skill set and bring to the task the deeper engagement and reflection necessary to master the inquiry process. All this must be backed by a deep cadre of trained coaches.
  • Every teacher must feel comfortable oscillating between discrete interactions in the classroom and social learning platforms that disseminate world class best practices, allow for network interactions, offer just in time feedback, and seamlessly integrate online and in class learning—a kind of work to web, and web to work, personalized solution for every teacher.

Navigating Chaos: The New 21st Century Skill

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The problem with the 21st century is that it won’t stand still. Just when the goal came into focus—get students ready to be ‘globally competitive’ and prepare them for ‘tomorrow’s world’ by teaching problem solving, collaboration, communication, and design skills—the planet decides to accelerate into its next phase.

A confluence of events is laying this bare. Tectonic shifts in every country. Media and technology spreading great truths, no truths, and ‘in-between’ truths. Policies, pronouncements, acts of violence, fake news, shining examples of care, and a daily stream of circus-like news events flowing like a fire hose into everyone’s device. Adding to the mix is constant revelation: What lay invisible or static for centuries—whether gender fluidity or male dominance or the size of the universe or humanity’s hidden impulses—has entered the public sphere for discussion and examination.

Mapped out mathematically, the pattern would be clear: Chaos. Chaos, in its ancient Greek form, meant a ‘gap’ or void. That is what we have. The rules have changed, but new rules have not been invented.

And, chaos has yielded a predictable outcome: The human psyche has been rattled. In the absence of established norms, respectful discourse and consensus problem solving are fading to black, replaced by argument and extreme views. Instinctual, hard-wired emotions rise up. The optimistic desire to create a harmonious global society founded on inclusion, diversity, tolerance, and a unified approach to an endangered planet becomes a competitor to the darker urge to protect home, hearth, and loved ones from unsettling life change, threat, and ‘otherness’. So let there be no mistake: At its deepest level, we’re now embarked on a fundamental human conversation about love and fear.

Also, as educators, let there be no mistake: This conversation will be front and center for the next two decades or so. Business as usual, particularly the education business in its industrial form, is done. Events mandate that education speed up its transformation from a system of compliance to a problem solving enterprise. And, with the unsettling bone deep, teachers will need to do a deep dive and give students a lot more practice in preparation for global world 2.0. Our young people have been presented with a new set of operational truths, and we must respond by teaching them a new skill: Navigating chaos. To do that—and hold up our part of the conversation—some shifts in our own thinking is in order, such as these:

Turn Project Based Learning into a governing philosophy. Education worldwide is properly tracked to teach students to think independently by engaging them more often in project based learning and inquiry. So, our instincts are sound. But PBL is much more than a project design process, to be used when a teacher decides to stop ‘regular’ instruction’ and ‘do’ a project. The philosophy of PBL, with its focus on the process of discovery and teacher as guide, is a suitable umbrella that embraces personalization, design thinking, maker spaces, visible thinking, growth mindset, 21st century skills mastery, technology, student-led instruction, and blended learning. A highly-qualified PBL teacher is a highly qualified 21st century teacher. It’s time to establish PBL as our mental model of teaching and learning.

Merge student voice with social emotional strengths. Beyond PBL, two trends are visible in education: Student voice and social-emotional learning. Underlying these trends is a powerful impulse to prepare young people to self-direct their learning. But no one does this without personal preparation. Young people are being asked to devise a new set of global rules while flying an airplane that needs immediate attention and doesn’t necessarily have capable adult pilots. Keeping us aloft will require knowledge, wisdom, and personal courage. That tells us we better focus on character as much as calculus.

Shift from critical thinking to non-binary thinking. Young people must be ready to navigate a standards-less world in which nothing seems certain. They will not be able to rely on authority for answers, nor will they easily find a consensus on the best choices for going forward, nor will strict logic apply. More than ever, they will need to use non-binary thinking to navigate the both/and world of chaos—and it will not be sufficient to rely on vague, undefined terms such as critical thinking. Instead, challenge students to solve and resolve ambiguous problems. Have them design and test solutions. Use the deeper learning model to put significant issues on their plate—and give them time to delve into the problem. Teach them to navigate the multi-polar chaos and choose their sources wisely. And note to self: This requires teachers who know and value the right sources. If you can’t discern fake news from sincere attempts at reporting and analysis, you should not teach.

Tap the group/global mind to solve and create. The deeper meaning behind PBL is that it allows students to engage in social learning, in which discourse, sharing, and deep collaboration tap the power of a group to test curiosity, resolve, moral judgment, and quality of thinking. A necessary first step is to stop thinking in terms of cooperative learning or group work. Our goal is not to teach students to ‘get along’; it is to set up the conditions and expectations for deep collaboration and innovation. Think in terms of teams. Teach protocols and visible thinking routines. Don’t reward students who just show up and don’t disrupt. Put them on a rubric that tests their willingness and ability to engage their peers in meaningful intellectual work.

Exchange standards for meaningful learning. Stop believing that better standards, or doing away with standards, or testing standards, or any system that revolves around constant chatter about standards, will save the day. We must find a way to avoid inviting coverage from teachers and a checked-off laundry list mentality from students. Time for subject matter experts to let go of teaching and testing every detail. Time for politicians to take on a learner’s perspective. Time to start teaching people instead of information. Time to minimize the curriculum and go interdisciplinary. Time to insist on helping students learn to engage in complex problem solving by moving daily work in the direction of inquiry, questioning, challenge, and defense. Time to reframe standards as a set of guidelines for personal rigor, accountability, and intellectual grasp. The mantra: Chaos is not compatible with fixed, written standards that define what one ‘ought’ to know. We should aim at something more fluid and personal.

Stand for love…oppose with love. Morality is on the table now. The drama of competing world views will not play out without conflict, sometimes intense. All of us, young and old, will be tested as to our regard for humanity’s diverse viewpoints. Yet, we will need to find our moral center and stand for our version of truth. There is only ONE version that all can agree to: Unconditional acceptance of each other. Those who cannot accept that must be opposed firmly, but with respect. This is the most difficult lesson at a time of chaos: No one can see clearly, so everyone has a viewpoint. Each must be respected, but each of us must imprint the chaos with a sincere and truthful view. It’s a test, folks.

Offer hope. How did the Greeks see it? Well, out of Chaos eventually evolved Gaia, a sense of each and wholeness. So we must offer a way forward and light at the end of the tunnel. Mathematically, chaotic patters resolve themselves into stable patterns that represent a new, evolved, and more orderly environment. I believe we should be helping young people see beyond the moment and understand that powerful new world can emerge out of present circumstances. It’s darkest before dawn, as they say.

An Educational Letter to the American Public

Image of mind thinker for project based learning

I’ve worked at over 350 schools—public, private, and charter—and with more than 6000 teachers in the past fifteen years. Perhaps it’s quaint in a post-truth world, but I have ‘experience’ and a certain number of ‘facts to share.

First, congratulations to President Trump and presumptive Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, for putting education front and center in the minds of the American public. I mean this sincerely. No one, including most teachers, has ever really cared who occupied the post of Secretary of Education. The term ‘education’ has never, to my memory, been mentioned in an inaugural speech. I supported President Obama, but he never showed interest in education as a national priority and left the Department of Education to muddle about, as it has for many years. So the conversation may have come by the back door, but it’s now in living rooms. That’s a good thing.

But the hard work starts: Preparing the American public for this discussion. If we’re going to step it up in the U.S., and not get dusted by the remainder of the world by mid-century, we must do better than claim that “all our beautiful children are deprived of knowledge,” in the words that came from the podium on January 20th, 2017. That’s not true. In fact, there are five harder truths that Americans need to assimilate, respect, and build upon in the coming conversation:

We can’t measure ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools. Putting easy labels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ on a school is nonsense, and defaulting to test scores as the measure of success is intellectual laziness. I’ve worked in top ranked schools and still meet many teachers who rely on formulaic, lecture-based teaching that bores kids out of their mind; I’ve worked in ‘bad’ schools in which I encounter a cadre of competent, caring teachers inspired by the professional challenge of doing good work under less than ideal circumstances. Both work under the brutal domination of test mania, despite the fact that low test scores most often reflect demographics and language issues, while very high test scores indicate  compliance and recall as core values practiced by both teachers and students. The hard truth is that without moving to metrics that measure deeper problem solving ability, applied skills, and social-emotional strengths—all keys to success in life now—we can’t quantify a quality education in the 21st Century.

Public schools are not failing. Of course, every survey shows that the vast majority of Americans like their neighborhood schools. The reason: Most schools do a pretty good job. Is there mediocrity in the system? Yes, too much of it, but that is a result of a two-fold legacy: (1) A land grant history that set a low bar for teaching qualifications and salaries and has not been significantly raised; and (2) an industrial system that spawned a top down, command and control approach to running schools, giving natural rise to overly bureaucratic rules and union resistance. In the system we designed—and live with—stagnation is inevitable, particularly when supported by parents who lag far behind teachers in their understanding of solid education. The hard truth and good news is that this system has begun to transform itself, and needs support rather than silly laments about ‘government’ schools. I visit school after school and district after district, in which momentum for change is visible and vibrating. We have thousands of public school teachers in this country who are collaborating with colleagues to shift their teaching practices and redesign their local school. Rather than disparage them, we should be immensely proud as Americans that the engine of innovation is at work. Transforming a public system at scale in our country is not easy work.

Private schools are not better; they’re different. I’ve been in wonderful private schools, staffed with terrific teachers. With a generally compliant and well prepared student body, and with less testing and standards restrictions, private schools can offer a magical education. But one thing usually stands out: Because most parents pay for a private education that oils the path to a good college, private schools can be slow to innovate. It’s a limitation inherent in a system that puts far too much emphasis—still—on the ‘right’ college degree. The hard truth here: We’re stuck on college as the end-all, be-all solution to success. Our goal as a country should be to redefine success beyond a college degree, expand opportunities for meaningful technical work, teach more job skills and less calculus, and get on with the task of getting our kids prepared for their world, not ours.

A charter school is a charter school. The conversation around charter schools is so confused that I wonder if America is capable of disentangling facts from fiction. A charter school is a method of organizing and financing public education; the designation says nothing about teaching methods or quality. And Betsy DeVos is right: The outcomes matter most. So where are the fault lines? On the left, critics conflate every charter school with privatized education; it’s not ‘progressive’ to fund charter schools, which threaten our public school system. Union leadership contributes to this fiction. So let’s start with responding intelligently. Some charter schools are driven by profit and greed, organized by founders who have no connection to public purpose. These privatization efforts should be disbanded and not given public support. But I haven’t been in any of those schools myself; I’ve only worked with the many charters whose founders, leaders, and teachers want to improve public education and contribute to new models of learning. Good for them. They deserve support from left and right because of this hard truth: They have driven most of the innovations in education over the last five years by developing and perfecting a redesigned system of learning. These prototypes are now being adopted and built out by traditional public schools by committed and innovative public school teachers—exactly as charter visionaries anticipated. At some point, we will have a newly-invented public system—and charters will deserve a large share of the credit.

Fear is the barrier. As Americans, we pride ourselves on innovation, ‘can-do’, and a forward-leaning version of ourselves. That attitude shows up in business, non-profits, and community progress.But when it comes to education, we’re terrified of the future, not brave. Still using the same general educational curriculum, with subjects offered in the same order, as in 1923? Check. Still following 50-minute bell periods, although every bit of research says no one learns deeply in that regimen? Check. Still sitting in rows, just like employees work in isolation in business (Not)? Check. Still teaching advanced math that 96% of us never use because it’s hard and good for our character (why not require Greek instead)? Check. And so on. What’s the barrier? What stops us? The very hard truth is that we’re paralyzed by fear of trying something new with our children. We are not yet brave enough to release them from the safe confines of industrial education and work as co-creators to help them find their way in a world that they will design, regardless of us.

SEL and PBL: Let’s Have One Conversation

Image of compass for project based learning

It’s always been of interest to me that an IQ test for students in 1910 contained questions such as this: What is the relationship between a dog and rabbit?

Even more interesting is the correct answer at the time: Dogs chase rabbits.

In 2016, such an answer would qualify the test taker for one of those scientific labels slapped on the supposedly deficient humans of the early 20th century, such as idiot and moron. Today, any 6th grader knows the right answer: Dogs and rabbits are both mammals.

That’s one example of how our notion of ‘smartness’ depends on social expectations and the surrounding culture. It’s also a marker of how the scientific model has penetrated our thinking about learning over the last 100 years and led to a deeply-embedded cognitive version of schooling that relies on categorization and logic. It’s a cognitive bias that shows up everywhere in the academic curriculum.

The problem is this, however: Our old notion of intelligence is no longer useful. Managers in private sector industries contend with this daily, as they try to tap the personal strengths of employees to improve communication and collaboration skills, deepen engagement in the company mission, and develop self-motivated leaders. They have increasingly turned to research into positive psychology and strengths-based thinking to give employees more autonomy, meaningful work, and opportunities for personal as well as professional growth—the kind of ‘thrive and drive’ mentality described by Daniel Pink in his books Drive and a Whole New Mind.

The challenge for managers is that no Driver’s Manual exists for teaching this emerging form of intelligence. Training works, up to a point, but intangibles of personality can’t be easily condensed into a set of bullet points or addressed through one day workshops.

The same dilemma applies to teachers who practice project based learning (PBL), which mirrors industry preparation by focusing on skills, process, and performance rather than testing and recall. To succeed, PBL must also tap into personality, hidden strengths, and emotional intelligence—the kinds of attributes and assets that lead to peak performance. This is a core challenge for a PBL teacher. In fact, I would argue that this is education’s foremost challenge at the moment: How to bring forth, make visible, and support social-emotional strengths critical to success in life and work in today’s world.

It’s clear that teaching a strengths-based version of SEL into schools won’t succeed by putting more posters on the walls of classrooms. Nor can schools issue a textbook on the subject. We need a more powerful method—and I suggest that the path forward is to integrate the process of PBL with the practice, mastery, and reflection on SEL strengths.

There is good news here: PBL is becoming wildly popular. When done well, PBL offers students well-structured opportunities to learn problem solving, collaboration, and critical thinking skills that result in deeper learning, greater satisfaction, and better preparation for the world at large.

That’s a great start, but the next step is to power up PBL by paying attention to a second trend, also visible, but less developed: The rapid rise of social emotional learning (SEL) as a key driver of student success. I use the term ‘less developed’ because much of the conversation around SEL still suffers from a cognitive bias hangover and the notion that emotions are a negative factor in learning. Obviously, it’s important to support students’ emotional well-being, but it’s critical now to transition to a strengths-based approach and focus on key intelligent behaviors such as curiosity, empathy, resiliency, social awareness, and self-management.

That’s a bit of a journey, but I’d suggest that PBL teachers can help shift the mindset by taking three steps:

  1. Focus on core factors.

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve seen how well executed PBL can provide a joyful learning experience for students. When projects offer the right mix of challenge, engagement, and personalized support, blended with a motivating, meaningful learning experience that reaches deep into the soul, joy is the outcome. You can see it bubble up in the animated faces, big smiles, body language, and open-hearted response of students at the end of a good project. In other words, we’ve reached the whole child.

This outcome can be explained by a little observed fact: PBL relies on the same conditions necessary for anyone to develop a ‘drive and thrive’ outlook: Experiencing mastery; finding meaning and fulfillment; and having a constructive relationship to a caring adult mentor. These are the exact three factors critical to effective PBL, which cannot succeed without a strong teacher-student relationship, a challenging, meaningful problem to be solved, and broad-based assessments that emphasize mastery and growth over time.

 2. Redefine rigor

PBL draws its power from the mantra that drove education reform in the last decade: rigor, relevance, and relationship. PBL offers more relevant education by infusing learning with greater authenticity and meaning. Plus, attention to student-centered teaching methods reflects the desire to develop productive, positive teacher-student relationships.

But something’s missing—and the gap tells us why performance lags in many projects: The concept of rigor remains static. Rigor is still associated exclusively with curriculum, information mastery and testing. Whether it’s the quantity of problems assigned for homework, the amount of reading required for the next day, or the ‘hardness’ of the test, rigor is defined in industrial terms. In the human performance field, rigor is a measure of personal performance, not a standard to quantify how much information has been learned. A PBL teacher can make this crucial shift by envisioning a mastery goal for students: To become a rigorous person.

  1. Make Challenge the Heart of PBL

Right now, not all PBL is equal. Too often, the goal is to cover standards under the guise of ‘student-centered instruction.’ Ultimately, however, I foresee that PBL will continue to evolve and become a consensus teaching philosophy designed to challenge students to go beyond standards and become designers, inventors, and deeper thinkers.

Attaining this goal begins with high quality project design that challenges students, stimulates deep inquiry, and requires them to demonstrate their mastery of skills and applied knowledge. Particularly, taking time to draft a deeper-learning Driving Question is the key to establishing the challenge.  ‘How can I prevent global warning?’ is quite different from ‘How can I take specific actions within my community that contribute to lessening the effects of climate change?’ The latter question inspires deeper thinking and engagement, and thus the level of mastery at the end.

Most important, however, a meaningful challenge inherently invites students to bring internal assets and strengths to the project—to bring their best. When students engage the world through authentic learning, have the opportunity learn and contribute, and can display their knowledge, they go through a growth process that makes visible the strengths that students will need for a successful future.

Why Empathy Holds the Key to Transforming 21St Century Learning

Like other aspects of modern life, education can make the head hurt. So many outcomes, so much important work to do, so many solutions and strategies, so many variations on teaching, so many different kinds of students with so many different needs, so many unknowns in preparing for 21st Century life and the endless list of jobs that haven’t been invented.

What if we discovered one unifying factor that brought all of this confusion under one roof and gave us a coherent sense of how to stimulate the intellect, teach children to engage in collaborative problem solving and creative challenge, and foster social-emotional balance and stability—one factor that, if we got right, would change the equation for learning in the same way that confirming the existence of a fundamental particle informs a grand theory of the universe?

That factor exists: It’s called empathy.

To make that argument requires a deep dive into the profound nature of empathy. Right now, empathy roughly equates to “I like you and am willing to tolerate you regardless of differences because I am a good person.” But the textbook definition hints at something more profound: It’s ‘the feeling of being able to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.’  That all-encompassing definition means empathy results from a complex of other meaningful emotions and attitudes that fuel human personality, such as openness, curiosity, self-restraint, vulnerability, sensitivity, awareness, respect, appreciation, and even love. Add this list to the fact that empathy can’t manifest unless we have had own experiences and emotions to contrast, compare, and connect with others—and we can see that empathy is more than a simple connector; it’s the subterranean, fundamental glue that holds humanity together.

Thus, it shouldn’t surprise us that such a potent emotion resonates across mind and body, influencing behavior and brain function. That is exactly the case. Empathy has the potential to open up students to deeper learning, drive clarity of thinking, and inspire engagement with the world—in other words, provide the emotional sustenance for outstanding human performance.

I see this regularly in my work with project based learning teachers who create classrooms that hum with good vibes and focused work. But to understand the full potential of empathy, let’s connect some dots. Those dots may appear unrelated at the moment, but they constitute a scatter plot with a trend line, predicting that empathy will eventually not be an add-on or ‘soft’ skill or one component of a middle school advisory program, and in the process confirm that a school system focused on cognition and testing alone cannot bring forth the greater purpose, focus, collaboration, and creativity necessary for 21st century students.

I see seven ‘dots’, if you will, that begin to paint this emerging picture of schooling in the future:

Empathy underlies collaboration. As social-emotional learning becomes more necessary to help students navigate life and work, empathy is getting more popular by the day, for good reason: Empathy lies at the heart of 21st century skillfulness in teamwork, collaboration, and communication in a diverse world. Speaking or listening to someone without radiating empathy narrows the channel of communication or blocks connection altogether. Particularly in the new reality of a global world, without empathy you’re not ready to engage the 21st century, either in the workplace or across cultures. It has to be taught, practiced, and coached.

Empathy is healthy. In the last twenty years, discussions about emotions have taken a radical turn. For years, negative emotions dominated theory and research. Today we know that positive emotions enhance well-being, health, relationships, and personal strengths. At the top of this pyramid are the emotions associated with empathy: curiosity, openness, appreciation, and gratitude (all of which lie in the quadrant of love). Empathy simply powers up the mind, body, and spirit.

Empathy promotes whole-child learning. A critical dot, overlooked in our brain-centric world, is that empathy activates the heart. As I’ve written many times, the heart has a role in learning equal to the brain. In fact, science does not support the mistaken notion that the brain does all the work. Research on heart rate variability and emotions shows that the heart engages the brain in constant conversation, using the language of emotions to direct the ‘state’ of the brain. To perform its role, the heart contains upwards of 40,000 neurons identical to nerve cells in the brain; eighty percent of nerve traffic travels upward from heart to brain, making it clear that is a full partner in the process of learning. While we don’t fully understand the implications of this partnership, two findings have been confirmed: Anxiety and negative feelings alter the coding of the messages sent by the heart to the brain, resulting in stress or fight or flight responses; positive emotions such as deep empathy are coded differently and activate the frontal lobes.

Empathy ‘opens’ us up. The frontal lobes, at least as much as we know now, are the seat of planning, execution, problem solving, and creativity—and when the frontal lobes of the brain are working well, so are we. In that well-documented ‘flow state,’ humans function at their peak, moving into a whole-body feeling of openness, relaxed focus, and creative possibility. If we know empathy activates the frontal lobes, why can’t we imagine intentional lessons about empathy and openness designed to put students in an optimal state for learning?

Empathy powers up inquiry and project based learning. Instruction is clearly headed in the direction of student-centered approaches such as inquiry and PBL. These approaches succeed in an atmosphere of care and positive relationships, both between student and teacher, and student and student. Classrooms that lack this foundation cannot succeed at project based work or open-ended questioning that relies on students’ ability to care about their learning. Setting up a culture of care is very much an exercise in making empathy central to daily work.

Empathy triggers creativity. Beyond rounding out the skills of collaboration and communication, empathy, design, and collaboration are interconnected pieces of the creative puzzle. Empathy is now identified as the first step in the design process, whether crafting new software for a user or creating form-factors that inherently please the consumer. Right now, empathy is described as ‘step.’ But that easy designation belies a very deep process in which a designer must, for lack of a better term, ‘sink into the mind of another and take on their persona’. That is a deep descriptor of an ultimate form of empathy—and it may be a necessary component of an educational system increasingly tilted toward design and inquiry.

Empathy unites. The list could have started here, but on a planet that is now close to completing the globalizing process, empathy assumes a special role as the key emotion critical for seven-plus billion people to live in harmony and cooperative relationship. For our Stone-Age brethren, fear and separation were appropriate mechanisms for survival. But that has been flipped by sheer numbers, technology, resource scarcity, and environmental impact. Empathy is required curriculum, and without it, eventually our current focus on high test scores and fulfilling college requirements will be rendered meaningless by untoward events.

The takeaway? Ready or not, education is entering an age in which social learning is the new norm. Pure academics are giving way to increased opportunities for students to work together; teachers increasingly take on the role of co-learner and facilitator; listening, learning, and teaming are the new core skills. At the heart of this new skillfulness for everyone is the ability to forge deep connections lead to creative problem solving and positive pursuits. Taken all together, this makes empathy critical to schools. In fact, very soon we will need to invent a  new taxonomy of learning that makes empathy the base of the learning pyramid.