If education is to help students reach their potential, we need to shift toward personalized, project-based learning.
Human creativity is the fuel of an innovative society. It is a natural, expandable, and infinitely renewable resource. However, rather than fully developing this resource in our young people, we are caging and stifling it. We must grow the strengths of individual students, not force-feed them predetermined, age-based, arbitrary subject-matter that they will not only soon forget, but that also causes stress, takes far too much time, and crushes their curiosity and passion for learning. We need to set free the idealism that lies coiled, waiting to be sprung, in every young person.
The answer for Canada’s education system lies in a shift towards personalized, real-world, project-based learning.
A golden age for innovation and creativity
Adolescence can be a golden age for innovation and creativity, and the brain continues to develop long after all other organs have stopped developing. This is a period of tremendous brain malleability and “neuroplasticity,” the brain’s intense sensitivity to its environment and its ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. In supportive, nurturing, purposeful environments, adolescents have the capacity for prodigious accomplishments, far beyond the limited expectations of the education system.
Open and excitable brains can also suffer in powerful and enduring ways when exposed to stress, anger, fear, humiliation, or boredom. Bullying, by siblings and peers is damaging, but by authority figures like parents, teachers, and coaches is far worse. Shame — of the red mark, the dreaded X, the lost point, the wrong answer, the lowered grade, the failed year, being benched — is a killer of dreams. It amplifies our fear of fear, keeps us from contributing, and short circuits our willingness to explore. When a brain circuit is not used, its connections become weaker and weaker, to the point where the circuit finally ceases to exist.
The ages 10 to 25 are an essential time of emotional intensity, social engagement, and unbounded creativity. We remember hands-on, real-world activities — the school play, the robotics project, the school newspaper, the young entrepreneurs project, skills competitions, financial literacy challenges, student exchanges, meaningful youth service — all our lives.
And whether it is skate boarding, jazz band, hockey, peer-counselling, rapping, hacking, or story-telling — whatever the brain focuses on for long enough, it gets better at. Neurons that fire together wire together. During adolescence, we need to create environments for students to find their “sparks,” something that lights them up inside and gives purpose to their lives. Kids who thrive have two important qualities: They know what their sparks are, and they have adults who encourage and support them.
The limitations of our education system
We entrust our children and our future to teachers, who are mostly caring, patient, and dedicated people. Teachers are not the problem. The problem is the system.
Teachers are not taught how to help students choose future roles. That task is relegated to school counsellors. In their triage of academic and social issues, the latter tend to get short shrift. So, millions of students exit the education system each year with little understanding of the challenges of entering today’s workforce and how to build a fulfilling adult life. Two in five 16-30 year-olds today are unemployed, or they are underemployed in precarious, low wage/benefit jobs.
Students are told by their teachers, counsellors and parents they must go to university to get a good career. But the majority of in-demand career pathways to good middle-class jobs today do not require a four-year degree. Nonetheless, this well-intentioned advice leads many students into substantial debt, yet no more clarity about career pathways that are aligned with their interests, strengths and aspirations.
One poll of US students documented what it called the “school cliff.” The poll found that in primary school 76 percent of students are fully engaged, but in high school, their engagement plummets to 44 percent. High school isn’t about students’ dreams — it’s more demanding and less fun.
We need to be instilling in students the confidence, courage and creativity to try new ideas and reach higher. They will inevitably make mistakes. And according to neuroscience, this is precisely how we learn and how our brains grow. If we are not making mistakes, our imaginations are not fully engaged, we are not being creative enough and our brains are not growing.
Project-based learning employs a “learn-by-doing” curriculum, which integrates core subjects with real-world problems that need to be solved. Teachers work in teams to identify key standards and skills to be addressed. Then, they work backwards to plan their curriculum, striving to create engaging interdisciplinary projects that centre on a “big idea,” one that has real-world connections that are rigorous, relevant and meaningful to students’ own lives.
Local employers and community partners play vital roles by helping connect projects to industry expertise and standards, as well as real community challenges. Parents play all-important coaching and supporting roles.
The students themselves work in teams to create a final product that demonstrates mastery of content standards and acquisition of key “soft skills” such as critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. One of the most important aspects of project-based learning is a public presentation of the work created. Assessment is based on the student’s ability to articulate and demonstrate the content and skills learned. Students’ progress is measured by means of traditional tests and quizzes, public presentations, exhibitions and digital portfolios.
Canada could be a world leader in transitioning to personal, real-world, project-based learning. But this won’t happen with diverse public and Indigenous education systems attempting to find the way forward independently. We need to foster collaboration among diverse stakeholders across the country, so we can begin to scale current best practices and address the gaps where we are failing to adequately prepare students for adulthood. Organizations such as Transitions Canada Coalition that are willing to leave their egos and competitive instincts aside in order to better prepare all youth for success in career and life, including Indigenous people and new arrivals, will be a good start.
The challenge of artificial intelligence, smart machines, and robots replacing humans is a final frontier for humans. We have a distinctly human capacity for imagination, empathy, and creativity and innovation. Uncaging students’ creativity and potential, through project-based learning linked to issues they care deeply about, will prepare them to build happy, successful lives for themselves, and change the world for the better for all of us. If education is to truly help students reach their potential, the shift to personalized, real-world, project-based learning is non-negotiable.
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