Edgeucation Blog

Building a New Ecosystem for Old Learning

June 29, 2020

Thom Markham

When 58 million children simultaneously experience freedom, discover learning through the lens of passion and purpose to be exciting and engaging, turn kindness and empathy into a viral event in response to a global airstrike for human rights, and consume daily reports of urgent future challenges to their survival, their collective psyche shifts and behaviors change.

Humanity is different now. So are youth, and we had better be ready. Part of the massive shift in youth consciousness and in many of their families is the common realization that in today’s world, school isn’t normal.

Simple ecology lies behind the shift. For years there’s been growing evidence that the skills, strengths, agility, and attitudes required for the young to thrive in their new environment can’t be instilled within four walls using conventional means of instruction in subjects barely changed for the last 100 years. Yet as a global society we’ve clung to the idea that schools are the hub of learning. The disruptors of the past several months have revealed the limits of that ecosystem.

Educators have noticed. The educational world is flooded with webinars on the ‘future of learning’ and creating ‘schools of tomorrow.’ Standardized tests, institutional mandates, and admission requirements have been jettisoned. But demolition won’t be sufficient. The hub has shifted to the person, not the school. I don’t believe schools can recover from that experience. Instead, I believe the once-in-a-lifetime challenge offered by the events of the day is to recognize that schools no longer serve as the hub for learning; they must be part of a new healthier global ecosystem focused on creating the optimal conditions to help every young person thrive.

I don’t think we have a choice. We need to grow better human beings—and more of them, everywhere. A new ecosystem must exhibit extraordinary stability, resistance, and resilience to persist and contend with the earth-threatening disturbances of climate change, inequality, and social unrest, as well as liberate a deeper level of creativity and imagination critical to invention and innovation.

That requires a global system committed to every child, in every corner of humanity, without regard for the artificial boundaries of nationality, race, ethnicities, lifestyle, or gender. Joining together to explicitly nurture inner strengths, empathy, resilience, and a commitment to every individual’s opportunity to thrive and collaborate—the invisible parts of the self inevitably to be tested by future events—is the job of the village, as the virus has taught us in a few short months.

The Project Mindset: What is It?

I use the phrase ‘Project Mindset’ to describe the goal. A mindset is a blend of capability, attitude, and commitment, built on a foundation of openness and empathy, that fosters capacity for engagement, problem solving, and creativity. The ‘project’ aspect leads to observable behaviors to replace the old metrics of certificates and degrees. The list will vary with practitioners yet there is surprising unanimity around the following nine indicators:

The good news is that we’ve groped our way towards this new mindset for some time. And one reason I believe that we can create a sustainable global ecosystem to support the Project Mindset is that it is already in place. Virtually every school system in the world, high performing company, and job offer from an organization of any size, revolves around the same vision.

The Project Mindset: Building Out the Ecosystem

Where the work ahead lies is creating consensus on how to support youth in developing a project mindset. This is a challenge because a mindset can’t be taught—adults only create the conditions under which it can flourish. Once established, the mindset acts as an attractor, drawing into it the knowledge necessary to grow further.

A stable ecosystem also needs to be built on timeless truths, not the artifacts of a faded industrial world. Gardens grow because they do, not because they are tested. In my mind, that begins by returning to our roots and seeing learning as a natural process that humans tuned into when consciousness first stirred. Reinvention is not necessary: The goal is to repackage and update old learning based on the timeless principles of challenge, passion, purpose, and freedom.

These principles drive our thinking now—another good sign for the ecosystem. As I wrote two months ago in Over the Online Rainbow: PBL, Gen Z, and the Return of Moral Courage, and in The ‘Project Mindset’: How to Hand Learning Power to the Next Generation, the exponential rise in project based learning practices can be attributed to our intuition about how people learn and thrive. Old learning starts with people, not curriculum—and as I’ve stated many times, PBL is a human development method, not an academic strategy.

However, terms such as ‘project based learning’ or ‘student-centered practices’ or ‘voice and choice’ won’t survive the new ecosystem. These terms lean toward the system and the teacher, not the person and the student. Old learning doesn’t depend on terms that divide, distract, and categorize. The energy of growth and learning will flow more freely when we accept that all we know about empowerment, projects, growth mindset, design thinking, creativity, communal work, contribution, and wellbeing all draw from the same well of freedom and challenge.  It’s a new mental model for us all, asking each of us to shift simultaneously to a more holistic view of the elements that make up an ecosystem for learning:

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Of course, this sounds radical. But the new ecosystem is centered laser-like on the person, not the system. I think of learning as energy, and the less constraints the better the flow. Those constraints will disappear if we as a world community—including educators, youth, parents, corporations, and citizens take on now visible lessons of deep interconnectivity and vulnerability and make a simultaneous leap into a new learning future.  

So, let’s end on a note of speculation. What if a Project Mindset (or whatever term emerges) became a key focus? What if everyone pledged to shift together? What if a student-centered world actually emerged, redefining learning as a personal voyage through a global sea, with each individual using their own compass, but on a collective mission to calm the waters?


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