Education Opinion

The Benefits of Accomplishment-Based Education

By Marc Prensky — October 19, 2014 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I’ve been posting recently about Accomplishment-Based Education. One reason this is so important is that we have been overlooking, in amost all of our discussions about technology in education, one of technology’s most obvious benefits — its ability to empower youth to accomplish desperately needed tasks in the world.

Perhaps this is because before digital technology, kids typically couldn’t accomplish such tasks until they were older. Perhaps it’s because we’re conditioned by our pre-Internet past against exploitative “child labor.” Or perhaps it’s because we’ve kept our young people from accomplishing useful things for so long that we’ve forgotten what they’re capable of.

But now a great deal has changed. Half the people on the planet are under the age of 25. They are, individually and as a group, increasingly capable and powerful — and linked to one another in ways that never existed before.

Instead of wasting our students’ capacity to accomplish positive change (much as, for a long time, we wasted much of our women’s capacity) we need to help our young people, and not hold them back.

Today, young people are starting their real-world accomplishments earlier and earlier, flocking to the world’s new jobs, such as website and app creation, search engine optimization and social media strategy. Those few well-known individuals who’ve started billion-dollar companies in their dorm rooms shouldn’t be viewed only as exceptions; they’re exceptional only in the magnitude of their accomplishments. All kids are now capable of accomplishing real things.

So Much More than a Test

When school administrators want to demonstrate what their schools are doing right, they increasingly point not to test scores, but to the accomplishments of their students in the broader world. One superintendent I know of cited a team of 4th graders who saw the need for a new water park. The students planned the park, pitched it to the city council, obtained the necessary funding, and supervised its construction, beating out professional architects. Another cited a pair of high school students who were building a robot so that a severely handicapped fellow student could attend classes from his bed.

Student accomplishments like these exist in huge numbers, but they’re typically outside the educational mainstream. Yet in actuality, this is the most important part of schooling. In doing real-world projects, kids learn the skills they need and more. They grow into the kind of people we want them to be. And they develop something that school rarely provides: a sense that they are capable of useful, real-world accomplishment.

The Power of Real

If the goal of education is for children to become better, more competent people who are well-prepared for the future, accomplishing is a far more effective means to that end than the “learning” that almost all our schools are fixated on today. Many schools have sensed this and have moved to skills-based education; others have added problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning to their curricula. This is a step in the right direction. But it misses something basic: Almost none of it is real.

Almost all our school problems and activities — including so-called “problem-based learning” — are just made-up. They’re designed to include the maximum number of “learnings,” or standards. They’re not designed to accomplish anything useful. What we need instead is an education in which the outcomes make a difference and provide real improvements to the world. I call this an accomplishment-based education. It needs to go far beyond the added-on “capstone” or “service” projects we sometimes see, to the very heart of what education is. If whatever kids learn in school were learned not in “courses,” but in service of accomplishing real-world problems chosen by the kids (in consultation with the teachers), we would have very different results — and attitudes — than we do today.

The students I talk to around the world are crying out for this kind of education. Raised in large part on the Internet and video games, they’re far better at both cooperation and competition than previous generations ever were. They know their power and capabilities and are frustrated at not being given the chance, daily, to use them. When they focus on tasks they’re passionate about, the amount of enthusiasm, energy, and intellect they put forth is prodigious.

Accomplishment-based education is not a wholly new idea; students everywhere are already devoting large chunks of their energy to solving real problems. The issue, rather, is that this kind of education is mostly haphazard, scattered, and random, and it often depends on, and is limited to, individual teachers, administrators, and schools. So how can we organize Accomplishment-Based Education to a much greater extent for all students? We could, for example:

  • Create local and worldwide databases of real, needed tasks that have been successfully accomplished by student projects, as well as of needed projects that student groups could potentially accomplish.

  • Hold science, robotics, and other competitions NOT to shoot balls through hoops or to make kids demonstrate something they’ve learned, but to get students competing as they drill water wells, clean up dumps, put out fires, or do other useful work.

  • Get students involved in designing, planning, funding, and even fixing or building infrastructure. This work could target physical infrastructure that doesn’t exist (for example, in villages that lack clean water) or existing infrastructure that’s crumbling. Adults are often needed only to keep students from inadvertently breaking laws or hurting themselves.

  • Engage our young people in helping us fix the often far-behind state of high-speed of desperately needed online connections and infrastructure. Young people are totally capable of doing this, and most of the instructions are already on the Internet.

This kind of real-world accomplishing should not just be in our school curriculum, it should BE our school curriculum.

As a start, we could begin tomorrow putting together the database of the many real projects our kids have already done throughout the world as part of their school years, as guidelines to students and teachers. We could build on that database every month and year from every school and classroom. We could compile a list of needed tasks in various places in the world, local or far-flung, and let students chose the ones that interest them.

For how long must our education remain artificial preparation for accomplishment, rather than accomplishment itself? Some people see moves to “common standards” or to “problem-based learning” as big steps forward. But those things are not what we need.

Just imagine if students left school not just with a diploma and grade point average, but with a resume — a list of real-world individual and team accomplishments that they could proudly point to and by which we could judge their capabilities and merits. This is what we need — an education that teaches kids how to think effectively, act effectively, relate effectively, and — most of all — effectively accomplish real projects that make the world a better place.

As always, your comments are welcome.


The opinions expressed in Prensky’s Provocative Ed-Tech Thinking are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.