The Education (R)evolution: Empathy, Creativity, & Project-Based Learning

Submitted on Thu, November 10, 2011

Last week, Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth column in the New York Times ran a piece on 16-year-old Nikhil Goyal’s call for a learning revolution. In assessing the problem with today’s factory-inspired education model, Nikhil—a high school junior now authoring a book on the subject—nails it with a single sentence: “school is boiled down to a process of memorization, regurgitation, and forgetting that information.” It’s a system “designed to create well-disciplined employees, not entrepreneurs and innovators”—complete with the enormous implications for long-term economic growth and standards of living that that entails.

Instead, he lays out a clear case for an alternative system: one that’s “rooted in 21st century learning skills and creativity, imagination, discovery, and project-based learning.” And lest you attempt to dismiss that vision as mere pie-in-the-sky imaginings of one ignorant of the practical challenges of public education, Nikhil cites examples like High Tech High, founded by Ashoka Fellow Larry Rosenstock, where "projects drive the curriculum, rather than the reverse."

But what do creativity, imagination, and project-based learning have to do with empathy? A lot actually. When Ashoka Fellow Kiran Bir Sethi, founder of the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India, set out to teach a group of 5th graders about human rights, she had them spend a day rolling incense sticks, discovering firsthand what it was to be a child laborer. As Kiran explains in her popular TED Talk, it was only after they had literally “stepped into another’s shoes” that they were able to effectively envision solutions and put those solutions into action, convincing their community that it was time to abolish child labor. Based on the tenets of design thinking, her four-step process—“Feel, Imagine, Do, Share”—is now at the core of her growing Design for Change movement, cultivating empathy in thousands of kids around the world and equipping them with the confidence and competence they need to take charge.

Technical fixes are nothing without a keen understanding of human development and behavior, and an ability to work hand-in-hand to bring an idea to life. Problems can’t be solved in a vacuum: they require the ability to deeply listen, to pick up on cues spoken and unspoken, to imagine solutions not as an outsider but from the user’s perspective, and to build on others’ ideas rather than narrowly guard your own.

Revkin ends with a call for other examples of effective project-based learning. So we’re happy to oblige:

Eric Dawson’s Peace First is building the next generation of peacemakers, not through lectures and finger-wagging, but by giving them the chance to take on peace-building projects in their own schools and neighborhoods. Peace FirstFor one hour each week, beginning in kindergarten and going through the 8th grade, students learn communication and conflict resolution skills through games and experiential activities, acting out the conflicts they see in their neighborhoods and exploring effective responses. They are then tasked with putting those practices into action, designing projects to make their neighborhoods and schools safer. The result? Groups of second-graders at Los Angeles’ Norwood Elementary conceived of and led teams of volunteers, teachers, and local high school students in painting four new murals with themes of peace, diversity, and friendship, replacing what were once graffiti-tagged grey walls.

Hands-on, project-based learning is at the core of DC’s Inspired Teaching Demonstration School, the brainchild of Ashoka Fellow Aleta Margolis and her Center for Inspired Teaching. There, teachers are facilitators, rather than mere instructors, asking questions rather than answering them, and are expected to “value students’ ideas and intellect far more than their obedience.” Banned from teaching shortcuts, teachers focus on designed experiments through which students discover why something is the way it is.

And poll a sample size of 100 of our own Youth Venturers, and we're betting they'll tell you the process of identifying a challenge they care about, conceiving of a solution, launching a venture, and mobilizing a team to make their idea a reality is worth far more than any classroom instruction.

But here's the good news: it doesn't have to be. A growing number of forward-pushing educators are increasingly turning our notion of the classroom on its head, turning the communities of which they're a part into hands-on learning laboratories. If that's to work, empathy must be positioned not as a peripheral nice-to-have, but as being at the core of effective problem-solving and decision-making. Fortunately, that learning revolution is closer than we might think.

Image credit: Peace First