Re-thinking education for the messy 21st Century
Re-thinking education for the messy 21st Century By Adam Fairall, Middle School Teacher at Reddam House Atlantic Seaboard
It’s safe to say that Covid has taught most teachers, students and parents two important lessons:
1) Human connection is vital for our mental well-being, and
2) We need to re-examine how we educate our children.
Gone are the days of solving hypothetical problems in dog-eared old textbooks. Today, education needs to be exciting and fun and… well, real, by which I mean that we need to get out of the classroom and into the world. Covid has certainly proven the credibility of the Impact Learning Model we’ve been pioneering in our Middle School at Reddam House Atlantic Seaboard for four years. Based on the framework that underpins Project-Based Learning and Inquiry Teaching, it is a model that focuses on the impact real projects can have on both students and real-world problems.
We give our students opportunities to engage with real issues facing our community while working through components of our curriculum (we make them relevant to each other). Students build relationships with real people and companies working to solve issues such as homelessness 2019, responsible consumption, and sustainability 2020 and the future of our environment, particularly our oceans 2022. Our first project in 2019, which involved our students directly in feeding the homeless on our doorstep, was a wild success, winning us the Digicape – Apple Excellence in Education award for Curriculum Development. Even more of a success was the impact it had on our students, all of whom learned more about empathy than they ever would have learned sitting in a classroom.
Our 2022 project is no less challenging: looking into the cause of great numbers of seals washing up dead along the West Coast of Southern Africa. The entire project hinges on that one open-ended question: “What is killing our seals?” From this starting point students develop and explore questions of their own. In fact, questioning is now used not as a basis for assessment but rather as a tool for the development of curiosity. Students become immersed in the problem, identifying additional issues and the barriers to finding answers.
In the face of each barrier, students form teams which manage their own projects internally, collaborating on possible solutions to problems they’ve identified and contributing to the greater issue. With their external perspective and youthful insistence, they’re able to devise unique solutions and make unexpected connections.
For the seal project, our students are making important human connections. We’ve developed relationships with the Two Oceans Aquarium and with NPOs active in this field. We’ve managed to connect with the lead scientists working on the problem, we’ve looked at how we can contribute to raising funds for seal rescue and rehabilitation, and we’ve not just built relationships with seemingly separate organizations, we’ve managed to link them in their efforts to solve this crisis.
The skills our students learn incidentally are skills that equip them for living in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These include networking, problem-solving, strategic thinking, curiosity, writing persuasive emails, collaborative skill sharing and dynamic resource integration.
The connections students make with each other are equally important. We find that the weaker students are not simply carried by the team but are given opportunities and responsibilities that use their specific skill sets or inclinations so that they, too, can participate and develop. By contrast, the autodidactic self-starters find themselves in project management roles.
Our impact-learning projects run concurrently with best-practice teaching to ensure that the more traditional teaching outcomes are met. Students come away with an overall picture of the value of individual subjects alongside the ability to develop concepts that can help them understand problems and create solutions. They develop self-motivation and begin to value their own personal learning more.
The joys of impact-learning are the value these projects have on the perception of our school within the local community, and on student thinking. We’re exposing our students to careers where people don’t just work for a living, but work for things they feel passionate about. We want our students to leave school not just with the mission of making money, but with the idea of making deeply satisfying lives for themselves, lives that matter. We don’t know a better way of doing this than teaching them how to make a meaningful difference in the messy reality that is the 21st Century.