Edgeucation Blog

Over the Online Rainbow: PBL, Gen Z, and the Return of Moral Courage

March 25, 2020

Thom Markham

It’s not just an online moment for education. Something bigger
has happened. Industrial schooling is officially over.

Perhaps it doesn’t appear so. Teachers have done amazing
work to rapidly load brick and mortar lessons onto digital platforms, set up
class schedules, organize methods to collect homework, and busily teach at a
distance. It’s assumed that in a matter of time, life will return to normal,
schools will open, and the normal routine of lesson delivery, compliance and
testing will resume.

But will it? No. One clue is the deafening cheers worldwide
from educators celebrating the cancellation of high stakes tests. Who knew how
much they yearned for release from those tests? That genie will never go back
in the bottle.

Second, teachers have rediscovered what it means to be a
teacher. Teachers report high levels of challenge and exhaustion as they go
online and search for the right platform and methods, but the freedom to
reinvent has brought a revived sense of purpose and collegiality to the
profession. How this taste of freedom translates back in the classroom is
unknown. But prepare for newly empowered teaching force.  

Third, a still invisible phenomenon: Brains are being
rewired. Each day that 850 million students attend ‘school’ online while
experiencing crisis accelerates the dissembling of the herd mentality and the
formation of a global tribe with a revived collective consciousness. Expect
unsettling repercussions.

And, it’s all good. In a few short weeks, the Black Swan
event has accomplished more than 30 years of handwringing and hectoring could
ever do. A much-needed set of new learning practices is on the rise, meaning more
freedom for students, a revised skillset for teachers, and a rebuilt

How will the transformation play out, particularly if COVID-19
turns out to be the first crisis, not the last? What can we expect? For myself,
I foresee three phases.


In Phase One, teachers learn to use the tools of the digital
age to explore alternative ways to learn, but still think like brick and mortar
instructors. After a few weeks of novelty, this approach fails. Work does not
get done. Online games resume. Without the whip of a teacher’s voice, fear of
testing, and outdated standards as tools for compliance, low level brick and
mortar lessons lose their appeal. Everyone shrugs because, “Well, it’s just

The virus threat fades and students return to the fold.
Schools reinstate routines and testing, talk up university admissions, and reinforce
the rules. But something new is in the air. Students have made a silent
decision not to trade freedom for a seat in a row of desks. Teachers persist
but students resist.

The solution: Go hybrid. Subjects stay in silos and grade
level ‘expectations’ remain but flipped learning and more offloading of core
skill subjects to the internet is allowed. Yet it’s like an avalanche. Despite
efforts to modernize, standards slip while test scores drop. Handwringing
resumes. Yet to all but a few political leaders the hollowness and disconnect
of a standardized curriculum is obvious.


Students notice. There seems to be a vacuum in adult guidance.
Another crisis piles on. Energized by their newfound release from the four
walls of school—both metaphorically and in practice—young people mobilize and apply
the constructivist powers of the internet and apps to produce novel work
unrestricted by the normal workflow of essays and quizzes.

It does not take long for youth to realize that Instagram is
not their only link. Their conversations cross borders as they and their
teachers discover online resources from across the globe. Gen Z, and their
younger brethren Gen Alpha, mimic Millennials and begin to band together,
collaborating online in unprecedented numbers. As they find each other, they
discover, perhaps quite abruptly, that they share a common world, with common
threats from viruses, climate change, a common distrust of leaders, and lack of
innovation in institutions and communities—all at once. A formidable bloc of
under-30 citizens, including teachers, endorses rebellion. From that point,
it’s a short distance to critically questioning—and finally disposing of—a
system of learning devised by adults for a faded world.

Purposeful learning

If adults do it right and don’t spend all their energy
trying to drag youth back into the fold, Phase Three unveils itself—and it
could be a good one. The old ‘hand it in, hand it back’ culture is dead. What
replaces it? That will the choice.

The best choice is let learning flow in its natural
direction toward the problems of the day. In this phase, students hit their
stride but so do educators. A new version of ‘school’ emerges that supports the
global tribe digitally and face to face. Teachers truly move into the role of
facilitators.  Education becomes a
co-creative act rooted in project-based work (PBL) and design thinking. But
it’s not the brick and mortar version of PBL used with varying levels of
success now. It’s a powerful, field-tested model refined for online work that
replicates the human-centered design process by which the world moves forward. It
focuses on authentic problems, commits participants to innovation, blends core
knowledge with skillfulness, and values openness, inquiry, and deep collaboration.

Now, we’re wide awake. Adults worry, for good reason, that successive
breakdown and crisis have tested the inner life of children as never before. Back
in the day, brick and mortar wall posters advocating virtuous behavior
sufficed. But the world revolves on a new axis. Helping young people learn to contribute,
find satisfaction in helping fellow humans thrive, and supporting their ability
to stand up to adversity—the realms of resilience and moral courage—are
paramount outcomes and must be built into learning.

That’s when we discover a Holy Grail: Education shifts to
people development and refocuses on character and human strengths. Again,
project based work turns out to be the perfect tool. As youth partner with a
caring, knowledgeable mentor, project based work informed by strengths-based
psychology proves to duplicate the conditions under which humans grow up to be
healthy adults. The co-creative partnership between mentor and student fuels challenge,
purpose, autonomy, and mastery—the exact elements cited by youth experts as
best indicators for life success.

Of course, if all the dissolution and disruption of the
present phase is to yield real results, one more phase must occur: Crowd
sourcing collective solutions that yield a livable, positive future. That’s why
unleashing the creative energies of the 1.3 billion youth worldwide who are
waiting for a redesigned world is critical. Transformation will take us there,
if allowed.

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