Edgeucation Blog

The ‘Project Mindset’: How to Hand Learning Power to the Next Generation

April 26, 2020

Thom Markham

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

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

  • 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
  • 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

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

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.

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