Orthodoxy, risk reduction, and safe ‘standards’ are over. What’s next? Go beyond PBL!
Like the Berlin Wall, the edifice of education disappeared overnight. 1.52 billion young people have been sent from the classroom and are learning, unlearning, or doing something at home. This is an amazing geological event, like the end of the Ice Age. It will spawn a range of questions, from ‘Who knew it was so fragile?’ to ‘What will we do with all those expensive whiteboards?’
A bit of humor might be wise because the demolition is complete. A system defined by ‘safe’ expectations has crashed, disposing of normal educational practices and leaving everyone adrift. Consider what we’re seeing:
- Learning is fun. 91% of young people have momentarily escaped the Death Valley (Sir Ken Robinson’s term) of an outmoded industrial system that values information and instruments of control before people, relationships, and open-ended exploration. An astounding number of youth (and their parents) have awakened to a joyful new reality: When driven by passion and curiosity, learning fuels itself.
- The whole child is back. Industrial-era education allowed learning to be defined as a set of standardized targets met by using ‘evidence based’ methods to deliver chunks of information to the brain. This highly reductive, mechanistic, and cognitive-centric view of learning—on steroids for the past two decades—disenfranchised critical elements of human personality, such as curiosity, empathy, and wonder. The post COVID era’s focus on invention will force the embrace of the ‘iceberg’ model of human functioning—the hidden, least teachable, and most-difficult-to-measure domains of imagination, creativity, and human connection.
- Adults are lost. With so many young people experiencing the freedom to learn on their terms, plus the unspoken loss of trust and trauma brought on by global life shifting on its axis, a sudden vacuum is evident. No one knows what to do—and won’t for a long while. This makes it near impossible for adults to lead through dictate.
- Something bigger is in the air. The moment of ‘unknowing’ coincides with the somber realization that a renewed vision for educating the young is not an ordinary choice. Climate change, inequality, water scarcity, and other crises on the horizon will inevitably arrive with the same suddenness as the virus. It’s difficult to voice because of its implications, but a secret question underlies this moment: Is this the final opportunity for humans to thoughtfully redesign learning?
So, everyone is scrambling and asking: What now? Most teachers are focusing on more project based learning (PBL). That’s a good start. PBL provides a beautiful frame for questioning, problem solving, design thinking, social emotional growth, and collaboration and contribution. It upends the dreaded lecture and invites less standardization.
But PBL needs to evolve beyond a teacher-led, student-friendly method for ‘problem solving’ in pursuit of meeting outcomes set by a standardized curriculum devised by adults. That’s part of the demolition. Orthodoxy is over. Education must find ways to regain faith in exploration and trust in the evolution of human talent rather than repaving a safe path between the lines.
There is only one choice remaining: Hand the power to learn back to young people and turn them loose to find a better future, independent of preconditions. Rather than ‘project based learning’, imagine how teachers can encourage a ‘project mindset’ in students by shifting from outcomes to explicit values that support wellbeing, personalization, purpose, investigation, and deep collaboration—all framed by a profound commitment to merging the global mind in pursuit of a positive future. PBL still exists, but with two crucial changes. It’s driven by a deeper vision of change and innovation, and informed and led by mentor-ready teachers who become co-learners and partners on the ride together. Think of five objectives for the new curriculum:
The opportunity for finding self. The ‘project mindset’ begins with encouraging and training young people to develop empathy, openness, curiosity, perseverance, and resilience. Shift the focus in learning from gathering less data about the outer world and more insight into self. Reflection, a sense of the journey, and a healthy focus on developing positive strengths takes priority.
Developing a vision of the whole. In the new system, everyone is in this together, regardless of any national, ethnic, or cultural boundaries. It’s time to connect holism, wholeness, holistic, and health (and holy)—all of which derive from the same word—into a vision of interconnectedness that underlies all learning. A new fundamental, basic skill is to help make the planet whole. The ‘project mindset’ is focused on sustainable solutions and meaningful, authentic problem solving, with teachers serving as sensitive guides on important issues.
Revisioning accountability. Literacy and science and language and quadratic formulas and beautiful forms of knowledge will continue. But as life moves outside the lines, young people will use a ‘project mindset’ to define these in terms personal to their needs, all the while inventing new forms of knowledge that can’t be fit into the container of subjects. The ‘new normal’ for teachers is to reward innovation and non-compliance.
Adopting human-centered design. A critical goal of the ‘project mindset’ is to tap the power of purpose necessary to drive a new generation of design thinkers committed to solutions for the whole. Since this process is no longer dependent on standards and predetermined outcomes, the barriers that prevented PBL and design thinking from a complete merger have been removed. The goal for PBL teachers now? Take advantage of this by placing design thinking at the heart of the process of exploration, imagination, and creativity.
Telling the story of a learning planet. Young people may spearhead the ‘project mindset’ but the greater goal is a ‘communal mindset’ that unites students, teachers, and parents into a planet-wide village of learners. PBL highlights public sharing already, but the next step for teachers is to amplify the message of change, exploration, and innovation by focusing on the ability and opportunity for students to tell their stories, share global solutions, and find their tribe. In fact, the best thing education could do would be to build a global network of design challenges that transcend culture and country. Orthodoxy is over, synergy is in.