Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Student Diaries Reveal the Power of Project-Based Learning

How PBL in local communities nurtures more empathetic leaders and creative problem-solvers

By Gaia Ines Fassò

Learning is an experience. Social. Emotional. Multi-sensory. It took nothing short of a global pandemic to re-centre the educational discourse around this important premise.

But what kind of experiences foster effective, lasting learning? During the lockdowns, I have been interviewing students around the world about their experience of learning remotely. THRIVE goes live today, where you can find voices of students during the lockdown and take part in a regenerative dialogue around the type of learning experiences that help students to thrive at life-long learning.

From Ina’s and Scott’s stories, we learn about the unique combination of project-based and place-based curricula by the THINK Global School (TGS). TGS sits at “the confluence of travel and learning”: students move to a different country every term, completing place-based learning projects along the way.

This method instills a passion for learning in students and it nurtures empathetic leaders and creative problem-solvers — traits that we need in our leaders now more than ever, at a time when a health, societal and economic crisis is roiling our lives.

This space is not a disused building. This space is an experience.

Ina and TGS team renovates cultural center for children and young people in Tirana, Albania

Ina graduated from TGS during the lockdown. Originally from Kosovo, Ina lives in Tirana, Albania, where schools do not offer non-core subjects, because “they are not doomed to be important for learning”, she tells me. This means children are deprived of the opportunity to find and express their creativity: “All they are left to do after school is just play video games or sit at home. Culture back home is not valued or recognised”, Ina tells me, before adding emphatically, as if a large audience sat behind our Zoom screens: “It’s up to us to cultivate it.”

Bringing every young person in Tirana the opportunity to be creative is Ina’s contribution to her community — and it is a huge contribution to the world of education.

At age 17, Ina is a natural at activism. During her school term spent travelling in Australia, she studied the topic in depth, interviewing experts and learning about different activism strategies, tactics and delivery models. At the start of each week, Ina would plan and record on her school’s learning management system Headrush, the questions she had for the experts taking part in her school lectures or her interviews. At the end of each week, she would then record her learning reflections (I wish I had Headrush to guide my student interviews!).

So by the time the travelling term came to an end, Ina had all her learning and reflections in one place to implement her service learning module: an activism strategy to mobilise the city of Tirana to open a cultural center for children and young people. Ina and some volunteers went picketing outside of Town Hall for days, until they were granted access to a warehouse. They then bid for and won funding from the Swiss embassy and support from international NGO Toestand to convert the warehouse into a cultural centre, which opened in 2019.

This year, during the remote learning term, Ina started to design a creativity summer programme to take place in the centre. She reviewed her notes on Headrush, took online courses about creativity and pedagogical strategy and consulted local young people about their needs and dreams. Seeking to brainstorm on different solutions, Ina led mindmap sessions with the other volunteers: after two years at TGS, “doing a mindmap on Headrush comes naturally to me”, she blushes.

Ina’s School Project in the Headrush Task Board

Ina’s research, expert interviews, community consultations and collaborative ideations finally converged in the Uzina Summer Camp: “one week of new learning experiences, creative learning and fun!”, in Ina’s words. And once again, Ina and the cultural centre’s volunteers, bid for and won funding from an organisation called Leviz Albania to implement the programme.

But as lockdowns protracted, they could not launch the programme. For her school project, Ina built a programme handbook instead.

Then came graduation. And the (Zoom) goodbyes to her classmates. But the summer camp was not meant to live on a handbook alone. As soon as the lockdown eased in August, the Uzina Summer Camp launched and reached twenty 10–14 year olds.

So no, what you see above is not a building. It is a set of experiences, which have nourished the creativity, empathy and effectiveness of an ambitious, young activist. Bringing every young person in Tirana the opportunity to be creative is Ina’s contribution to her community — and it is a huge contribution to the world of education. Behind every learner is a curious mind. And behind this curious mind is a leader who successfully empathised with and mobilised her community, finding new solutions to shared problems.

Learning to be vulnerable and to serve local and global causes through place-based learning

Scott, Ina’s colleague at TGS, was teaching English at a local salon in Panama for his service learning project, when he and his colleagues saw the opportunity to help the salon staff build their e-commerce business. Armed with an e-commerce module from school, Scott and his colleagues built the new website for the new business as well as staff support resources on branding, online payments and e-commerce operations.

Having travelled since a young age and lived in Quito; Tortola and the US, Scott learned to feel his position of relative privilege early on in life. Every time the bubble he lived in got burst, Scott would allow himself to “be vulnerable in a new space” and soak in the knowledge there was to gain from it. During TGS, travelling took on a whole new meaning for Scott, as he would ask himself: “How will I learn in this new place and how will my work be affected by the new surroundings and [my] previous experiences?”.

“Where you live impacts your ideals of society but also what you do”

Working with the small business in Panama, Scott got close to what entrepreneurship looks like and what it takes to succeed. Now he is pursuing a BA in International Business at George Washington University out of a sense of passion, instead of finishing high school “unclear [of] what to do in the future”, as he expected he would be. “Now I feel a lot more confident about what I will get out of it, what courses I want to take”, he explains, before adding: “Where you live impacts your ideals of society but also what you do”.

Scott is now building with another friend a revenue-participating consulting firm, for small businesses like the Panama hair salon that need support to get a new project off the ground: “We want to focus on the idea of ‘Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime’”.

The unique combination of place- and project-based curricula at TGS makes the experience of learning come to life. Scott developed a new attitude to learning, that sense of: “Oh wow. I want to explore this”, which in the long run, he tells me, means people are more skilled and better able to “drive their own education”. And Ina found her own approach to learning: “An iterative process of research, design and implementation cycles to discover knowledge and practice skills”.

By focussing learning on the challenges faced by their local communities and what solutions they could design for them, Ina and Scott were able to deepen their learning about activism and entrepreneurship and to direct it towards making a positive, lasting impact on the people, businesses, governments and communities they lived side by side to. Through their experiences of setting up a creativity summer camp and building an e-commerce business, Ina and Scott grew their appreciation of what it means to be an empathetic leader and a creative problem-solver. And I dare say, they started their own journey of becoming one.

It is not uncommon for TGS students to go back to their home community after graduation to make a difference.

By learning from local contexts we can serve a global cause, like Ina is doing. And when travel is restricted like under the current COVID-19 regimes, the opportunity to apply learning in service of a community’s needs, like Scott is doing, is all around us.

Stories like Ina’s and Scott’s need to be shared widely especially in these challenging times, to help us to reflect on what kind of leaders our society needs and what education experiences may bring the new generation of leaders closer to the needs of their communities.

HEADRUSH facilitates learner-centered education from START to FINISH allowing students to become self-empowered learners, teachers to focus on mentoring great work and schools to be future-ready. Our Learning Liberators series highlights individuals and organizations that are brave enough to break the mold of traditional education and are making a difference in the world of learner-centered education. Join our community as we enhance dialog to support deeper learning. For more, follow @headrushapp on Twitter or visit us at https://headrushlearning.com.

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