International Opinion

Project-Based Learning Leads to Innovation

By Anthony Jackson & Lisa Tyrrell — April 23, 2013 3 min read
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The number one question I am asked is what teaching for the global innovation age looks like. My colleague Lisa Tyrrell offers a glimpse at promising practices.

At the recent Deeper Learning Conference at High Tech High in San Diego, keynote speaker Dr. Tony Wagner spoke about the importance of preparing students for the innovation economy. He knows a thing or two about this: Wagner is the first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard University and author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.

Many of the young, successful entrepreneurs that Wagner interviewed for his book noted that it was their project-based learning experiences that prepared them to be successful in the global innovation economy.

How are schools working to encourage the next generation of innovators? By developing unique, project-based learning opportunities that foster students’ passion and creativity, teachers are promoting innovation and Deeper Learning. Deeper learning experiences help students master core academic content, think critically, solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and engage in self-directed learning.

For example, consider Brian Bailey, English teacher at the Ambassador School of Global Leadership in Los Angeles, California. Brian allows students “Innovation” time each Friday in order to investigate their personal passions. This practice is modeled after Google’s twenty-percent time—where employees can spend 20% of work time on anything they want, with the belief that free thinking and tinkering leads to innovation. One student is learning to program a computer to respond to voice commands. Another student is attempting to develop a substance that will keep gum from sticking to tables. Other students are sponsoring children from other countries, working on a water purification system for salt-water, and trying to patent a product that will remove stains from suede. A small group of students are collaboratively reviewing the work of The National Research Council Committee to assess fuel economy technologies for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. This group is then working together to investigate ideas for greater fuel efficiency. Through self-directed learning, all these students are learning core academic content while thinking critically and solving complex problems.

Another good example comes from The Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS), where upperclassmen are afforded the opportunity to explore their personal passions through a program called Passages. This multi-year, project-based course allows students to engage in self-directed learning based on their individual interests in global issues. Students collaborate with faculty and community mentors to research a self-selected topic. Sample projects include: investigating the benefits and innovations that were a result of NASA spending; researching brain plasticity theories and treatments for Alzheimer’s, stroke, and phantom limbs; exploring renewable energy and testing different types of bio-diesel; developing a mentoring program for DCIS between High School and Middle School students; collecting medical supplies for Project Cure and working in a village in the Dominican Republic; organizing a trip to Thailand to work at an elephant rescue camp; service learning trip to two Haitian villages in the Dominican Republic; and facilitating student exchanges with other international studies schools and the developing a website for ongoing communication between students. Each spring, seniors exhibit their learning to the DCIS community and their committee. These projects engage the students in each of the tenets of Deeper Learning.

These are just two of several examples of the innovative teaching and deeper learning occurring schools. Both schools are part of the Asia Society International Studies Schools Network, which is part of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning Community of Practice.

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