As our globe becomes more connected and technology continues to transform how we get things done, there is increasing pressure on today’s learners to assimilate more skills and information than ever before. At the same time, never have our students been more capable of making a difference. Keeping up with the 21st century innovation imperative gives us a clear mandate to do it right— and also make the world a better place.
In today’s best schools, the fundamental three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) also now include the four C’s: Creativity, Collaboration, Critical thinking, and Communication. These are the most valued skills of our current economy and workforce. In addition, a new acronym STEAM has come along to signify the importance of integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. 21st century learners must master all of these disciplines and subjects, plus be active members of their school communities.
One approach that is not new to education and serves the four C’s and STEAM quite well is Project Based Learning (PBL). In PBL, teachers frame open-ended challenges that students figure out how they want to solve. Instead of teachers giving students information through lectures, reading, videos, etc. and then asking them to show that they understand it by taking a test or giving a presentation, PBL teachers challenge the class to find a solution to a big picture problem and the students learn by working on the solution. The work that the students do produces understanding and also some kind of product that they share with the community.
A well-designed PBL challenge can guide student learning in the 4 C’s and any subject area, including STEAM. In fact, skilled teachers can set the stage for an integrated experience that is very similar to the kind of work that students will face in the STEAM workforce.
In addition to meeting the imperative for more graduates who are experts in the 4 C’s, independent schools have a real opportunity to teach students that their ideas can make the world a better place. Children want to impact their community in positive ways and they are deeply motivated by the possibility that their innovative solutions might be able to solve real world problems facing the world today.
Therefore, designing PBL challenges that connect to real world problems is a natural next step that makes the experience one that instills service learning, and values care and leadership as means to improve the world around us.
These kinds of projects have often emerged as a result of the classroom work in our school. But this year we have taken things a step further by building it into the schedule.This spring we have set aside a once a week project time where we will be getting the 3rd, 4th and 5th graders together and presenting them with a real world community based problem to solve. We are not sure what the challenge will be just yet, but we will take something big, like how can we improve New York City’s response to the dangers of major storms, and then ask them to find some small thing that they can change for the better. They will form small teams, do research, create ideas and prototypes and share there thinking with the community. It will be exciting for everyone, and they might even make the world a better place!
Raising innovative leaders through an education that develops creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication is deeply important for our students, and teaching them that they can make a difference is an opportunity for a better world that they will live in.