We believe problem and project based learning is the future of education. The combination of these two pedagogies, synthesized into something we call Problem Projects, allows students to do meaningful creative work that has direct application in the real world. In our model, students chose a problem which they identify in escalating scales of locality--a problem in their school, their town, their state, their country, or the world--and construct a unique project to be presented in a public setting that shows thorough research and proposes possible solutions to the problem. Problem Projects are a cornerstone of our curriculum redesign, but the Paideia Project itself is one large Problem Project that we hope demonstrates the true potential of this type of learning.
Below are just a few of the problems we identified in our education system that our work is centered around. To see how our designs address these problems, visit our Project Page.
Lack of Funding
This issue effects every aspect of schooling. When schools lack funding, the resources and opportunities that serve as the backbone of children's learning begin to disappear. Art programs are cut in favor of courses that teach content that appears on state tests. Technology that augments the classrooms and gives students alternate means of learning certain material falls out of reach. Field trips and after school programs are cut. Full-time faculty is reduced, and teachers are not paid in proportion to the real value of their work. If you ask a public school teacher in an underserved community what the number one challenge is that they face everyday, they are likely to say giving their students "access to opportunities." Opportunities can be field trips, guest speakers, technology, or large-scale projects, but in all cases, they require adequate funding.
Public education is a public good, and so regulations and standards are put in place to confirm public taxes are being put to good use. These regulations and standards take the form of standardized curriculum and standardized tests, which dictate what schools need to teach, how they must teach it, and how students demonstrate what they've learned. If schools fail to produce adequate test scores or teach the required content, schools lose funding, creating a vicious cycle. Public schools will always require public funding. The primary solution to this issue must come from a cultural shift in how we value public education, but in our project we have tried to propose alternatives for schools to generate their own revenue to fund a portion of their programs.
Given the current paradigm of standardized testing, our school curriculum has become so narrow that teachers have little flexibility in choosing what they teach, and students are given even less flexibility in deciding how they learn. When teachers are forced to lecture the same content year after year, grade the same tests, and assign the same problem sets, it should not be surprising that few teachers find themselves able to bring their passion into the classroom.
Furthermore, by restricting the autonomy students are given over their own learning, our schools send a dangerous message to our children: "You are not in control of your own life." Students are taught to follow what is laid down before them, instead of taking charge and paving their own path. Lectures are outdated. The creator of Khan academy, Saul Khan, remarked in his TED talk Let's Use Video to Reinvent Education that lectures are "a fundamentally dehumanizing experience -- 30 kids with their fingers on their lips, not allowed to interact with each other." Students learn at different paces and through different mediums. In a country that prides itself on individual freedom and agency, our students are taught they have anything but.
The industrial model of education we find in schools today is epitomized in the design of our schools. Boxy brick buildings with poor ventilation, filled with overly lit fluorescent rectangles where students sit in assembly line-inspired rows outfitted with hard metal and plastic chairs. There is endless research supporting the notion that naturally lit green and open spaces are crucial for learning, and yet very few of our schools have designs that reflect this fact.
Beyond this though, many public schools lack the resources to do even simple repairs and maintenance, let alone design open green spaces with large glass windows and adaptable lighting. This brings us back to the first issue: lack of funding. It is our belief that students should come to school inspired by the space in which they spend 8 hours of their day. The architectural and interior designs of schools should be as thoughtfully designed as Apple's consumer products. Every detail matters, especially to children. If we show that we value the work our students are doing by investing in the environments in which they learn, they will take pride in their education.
Students largely perform the same rudimentary tasks and abstract problem sets that millions of students have completed before them. They are not asked to do original work, nor are they encouraged to use what other students have created to make something new--in fact, this is often called cheating, and yet it is a core building block of creativity. Dewey advocated for open-ended curriculum that posed problems and questions, rather than answers and solutions. As Dewey writes in Democracy and Education,‘“Knowledge,’ in the sense of information, means the working capital, the indispensable resources, of further inquiry; of finding out, or learning, more things. Frequently it is treated as an end itself, and then the goal becomes to heap it up and display it when called for. This static, cold-storage ideal of knowledge is inimical to educative development” (p.158). John Dewey wrote extensively on the importance of making learning relevant to students’ lives outside of school. Information should not be presented in schools as disconnected from reality, but instead should be directly connected to that which naturally occupies the students’ interests.
In addition, parents often drop their students off at school, pick them up in the afternoon, and call it a day, giving little regard to all that happens in between. In this respect, schools begin functioning more as daycare centers to perform the largely ambiguous task of 'educating' children. Parents should be engaged in their child's education, and feel the work they are doing at school is meaningful not just for them as students, but for the community at large.
Undervaluing Creativity & Entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship is no longer simply a label for profit driven capitalists. There are social entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and policy entrepreneurs all of whom push aspects of society forward towards progress. At its core, entrepreneurship is an act of creative problem solving, which is one of the most important skills schools can be cultivating in students today. The World Economic Forum defines entrepreneurship as, “a process that results in creativity, innovation and growth. Innovative entrepreneurs come in all shapes and forms; its benefits are not limited to startups, innovative ventures and new jobs. Entrepreneurship refers to an individual’s ability to turn ideas into action and is therefore a key competence for all, helping young people to be more creative and self-confident in whatever they undertake.” Is this not a quality we wish for all of our children to possess?
Entrepreneurs are risk-takers who pursue opportunities that others may fail to recognize or may even view as problems or threats. The increasingly globalized economy of the 21st century values collaboration, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Taking risks, having confidence, experimenting, identifying problems and working together to propose solutions, these are the skills that are necessary to navigate the modern world. In light of increasing worries over an unemployment crisis in the wake of advancing artificial intelligence, students need now more than ever the skills that will allow them to create their own value for themselves and strengthen their local communities.
An Uncertain Future
In the 21stcentury, humanity faces an unsettling and uncertain future. We have created windows into digital worlds that promised to connect and enlighten us, but instead stole our attention, fed us misinformation, and separated us. The exponential rate of technological progress bewilders our most veteran experts in the field, and we have already witnessed the political back-lash to rapid globalization. Given the philosophical questions humanity will face in the relatively near future, such as those which will arise from creating general AI, editing our genome to create designer babies, conquering death through nanobiotechnology, and finding purpose in the wake of mass unemployment, modernized education for all is becoming increasingly important to our collective prosperity. Our industrial model of education is increasingly inadequate for preparing our children for the future. Our students need to be flexible, adaptable, and have the skills to teach themselves long after they leave school. They will need to be able to switch occupations rapidly, and have enough technological literacy to navigate a tech-empowered world.