5 Reasons The Future of Education is Project Based

Peter Glenn
May 14, 2015 · 7 min read

And why we’ll abandon 200 years of rote education faster than you think.

“The most successful businesses have an idea for the future that’s very different from the present.” — Peter Thiel

PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel has famously said that the secret to building a successful business is believing something contrarian that no one else believes to be true (and being right).

Ten months ago, I moved to Los Angeles to co-found an edtech startup called CrowdSchool. From our team’s nearly two decades teaching, we founded our company on a powerful, contrarian idea we know to be true: The future of education is project based.

What is Project Based Learning?

Project Based Learning (PBL) was “discovered” as a teaching methodology over 100 years ago by education pioneer John Dewey who promoted the idea of “learning by doing.” PBL empowers students to learn through making projects that combine academics with solving real world challenges.

Video from Buck Institute for Education, a global thought leader on Project Based Learning

Once considered an alternative to the rote instructional model that dominates traditional school, Project Based Learning is gaining rapid adoption as teachers and schools seek new ways to make their classrooms more fun, engaging, and relevant for students.

But why, you might ask, would we abandon our emphasis on the rote, fact-based model of school that we’ve relied on for over 200 years?

Here are 5 reasons the future is project-based:

1 — Our work has changed profoundly.

The 19th Century classroom…
…bears a striking resemblance to factories.

Traditional school was designed in the industrial revolution to train kids from the farm to become factory workers. Applying the principles of mass production and standardization to education trained students with the skills needed at that time. It also resulted in making public education available for more students than any other time in human history.

Society has changed a great deal since the 19th Century, but our teaching methods have not. The rote memorization, worksheets, quizzes, and even rows of desks that exemplify most of our experiences of school came out of the Industrial Era. According to the OECD, only 75% of US students graduate high school, and the 63% of North Americans who graduate report being bored or disaffected by school. Is it any wonder that the Industrial model of school is losing relevancy today?

Thanks to the Internet we can search for nearly any fact we need in seconds. It’s no longer as important what you know as what you can do with knowledge.

Google’s innovative campuses are designed with project collaboration in mind.

The traditional model of school was born from the needs of a bygone era of standardization and mass production. If we can learn anything from observing the innovative workspaces of the 21st Century, it’s that collaborating on projects is a pretty important part of work in the information age.

Would you rather have your kids learn in a classroom structured like Google or a 19th Century factory?

2 — We learn by doing.

Imagine a world where playing baseball was deemed an important school subject that would be crucial to success in the real world after graduation. Taking a traditional fact-based approach, your teacher would give lectures and assign reading and homework on the rules, strategy of the game, history, etc. You would take quizzes and tests to assess how well you learned about playing baseball.

When you graduated from school and were hired to play on the field, how good of a baseball player would you be? How effective would it be to study the sport without spending much time on the field? Would baseball seem fun or relevant to you?

Human beings learn by doing. There are countless ways that learning facts are crucial to becoming an expert at everything from baseball to computer science. However, we need more Project Based Learning in schools to create fun and engaging connections between academic concepts and real world applications. Once students make these connections, I’ve seen PBL open up a type of intrinsic motivation in students that drives deeper, self directed learning. It also helps students be better prepared to be better prepared for life when they “get on the field” after school.

3 — We need to prepare students for an uncertain future.

A recent Oxford study cited in The Economist suggests that 47% of today’s jobs could be automated in the next two decades. How do we prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet?

“In a rapidly changing technological culture and an ever-growing information-based economy, creative ideas are the ultimate resource. Yet our current educational system does little to nourish this resource.”
— Peter Diamandis, Co-Founder, X Prize & Singularity University

4th Graders in Maryland present Bullying Prevention Campaigns in response to a project-based CrowdSchool Challenge.

With Project Based Learning, students work in teams to make projects that solve real world challenges. Through making a project, students master 21st Century skills like Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration and Communication that are hard to teach through traditional lectures, worksheets, and tests.

In the US, academic standards like the Common Core now require these 21st Century skills be taught in school for a reason. If today’s students can learn to identify problems and put together teams to solve them, we’ll help create a generation of innovative problem solvers capable of taking on this century’s greatest challenges (including challenges we haven’t imagined yet). What type of education could better equip students for whatever the future holds?

4 — Video killed the ‘Sage on the Stage’

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” — William James

I’ve heard some educators express concerns about technology attempting to eliminate teaching as a profession. If you consider teaching’s primary function the dispensing of information into students’ minds, you are on the path to irrelevance because the internet stores and organizes more facts better than the human mind.

Instructional, fact-based learning will continue to be important for becoming an expert at anything. However, internet hosted video has made personal in-class instruction less important ever. Using fact-based videos from websites like YouTube and Kahn Academy make it easy for teachers to flip their classrooms by allowing students to digest instructional content at their own time and pace.

Josh Beall, a middle school teacher in Los Angeles, coaches his students through a Marble Maze project Challenge he created on CrowdSchool.

This is a transformational opportunity for teachers because it frees up class time for us to spend less time instructing and more time offering personalized coaching and support to students as they practical projects in class. Empowered by technology, we as teachers can move from being ‘Sages on the Stage’ to ‘Coaches on the Court’.

5 — Low cost computing makes all students creators

As a child of the 80's, my experience of technology in school was playing Oregon Trail and learning typing on Apple IIe’s in the computer lab. The only projects we could afford to make involved cardboard, markers, and the occasional dry ice volcano.

A student edits a video project for a CrowdSchool Challenge on a personal phone she brought to school with her.

Today, thanks to Moore’s Law, radically low cost computing makes it possible for students to make projects like movies, blogs, apps, presentations, podcasts, TED talks, robots, and 3D printed projects at close to zero cost. While it can help to have one laptop per child, I’ve seen students film and edit movies on $100 smart phones.

Imagine what’s possible if we can empower more kids to combine technology with creative projects that solve real world challenges.

Sound too good to be true? Check out a team of 5th graders in Fresno who created a mobile app to track people’s water consumption and combat drought in California.

So why hasn’t Project Based Learning gone mainstream yet?

While a growing number of teachers are turning to Project Based Learning to create fun and engaging learning experiences for their students, there are some notable limitations to scale.

Developing and teaching traditional project-based curriculum is time intensive, and each teacher reinvents the wheel one classroom at a time. Also, many teachers need some professional development in order to get started. It’s unlikely to expect every teacher to create quality curriculum in every classroom given their time constraints. That’s why we created CrowdSchool.

CrowdSchool is a platform that makes it easy for teachers to save time by creating project-based Challenges (lessons & units) online. Under a teacher’s guidance, students work through the Challenge on devices in class to create projects that solve real world Challenges. Once the Challenge is complete, teachers can share their curriculum in CrowdSchool’s Marketplace and even earn some extra income as a micro-publisher.

Our 2 minute demo for CrowdSchool Beta

If every teacher could create a few great project-based lessons and share them, we can build a digital library of quality curriculum to deliver transformative project-based experiences in classrooms around the world.

Join us in creating and sharing curriculum for a project-based future. Sign up for a free beta account at CrowdSchool.co.

If you enjoyed this post, it would mean the world to me if you pressed the recommend button below and shared it on social media. Thank you!

Project Based Learning

Education writing on all things related to PBL.

Thanks to Tim Monreal

Peter Glenn

Written by

I’m a toddler dad who’s accelerating the transition to zero emissions energy at http://evlife.co

Project Based Learning

Education writing on all things related to PBL. Share your thoughts and ideas about PBL, and similar approaches to teaching and learning.

Peter Glenn

Written by

I’m a toddler dad who’s accelerating the transition to zero emissions energy at http://evlife.co

Project Based Learning

Education writing on all things related to PBL. Share your thoughts and ideas about PBL, and similar approaches to teaching and learning.

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