Would You Rather Be Traditional Or Prepare Students For The Future?

Would you rather eat only bananas for a year or give up dessert for the rest of your life? Would you rather move to another country or never be able to leave your town? These are the types of questions that can boggle your mind if you play “Would you rather?” with your students or kids.

This game always pits two equally complicated scenarios against each other, and it actually sparks creative and critical thinking. Late last spring, when I gave my “end of the year” Survey Monkey to students and parents, one of the comments nudged me into my own “Would you rather?” scenario.

Each spring my students do a “Passion Project” which allows them to read a nonfiction book or a large number of articles on a topic they care deeply about. They do a variety of activities, culminating in a 10-minute presentation of the website they build about their passion (we use Wix). My student Issac’s feedback around this was: “I wish we could do our Passion Projects all year. I could have made an entire video game!” Issac had collaborated with people from all over the globe on a challenge he designed where they built a video game level in five weeks, each contributing a different part. To me, this is what education should be about, and what it must become if we are to prepare students for their futures.

My “Would you rather?” became: “Would you rather continue a tried and true project that took a very long time to perfect, or would you rather change everything and devote one day a week to students’ Passion Projects?”

If you’ve ever read my writing, you’d know that when something new and innovative catches my attention, I’m more than willing to give it a try (after some initial feet dragging). However, it has taken years to get to the paperless, Project Based Learning classroom that I have today, and making the leap to “give up” one-fifth of my class time is as daunting as it is exciting.

Here’s what I’m going to do, and why it isn’t really a question after all:

1. Evoke a “Workshop” Mindset

The skills that my students will need–already need–are evolving so quickly that schools can’t keep up (with a few notable exceptions). And, though I do care about the systemic changes necessary, I know that grassroots efforts by teachers have always driven change. In other words: here I go again. I’m calling my classroom a “workshop,” which I define as “a place where you think, build, create, collaborate and produce one-of-a-kind products.”

I envision my classroom as a place where students can rehearse skills that they will need in the future by working on authentic problems and exploring possibilities. As I learned from Issac, the Passion Project was a place for him to explore his passion for video game collaborative design with my help as a facilitator and his global network along for the ride.

2. Organize for Multiple Projects

As a full-time teacher, author of two books, adjunct professor of two college classes and blogger, people often ask me where I find the time. The answer is pretty simple: I don’t “find” the time. I manage the time I have and multitask really well. All of the “gigs” I have are related, which means that I can “double dip” all the time.

For example, when I create a cool new lesson for my students, I immediately pitch the topic for a blog and incorporate it into my graduate courses. My goal for my middle school students this year as they spend one-fifth of our week on Passion Projects is to help them develop a sense of interconnectedness in their learning and then organize for multiple, simultaneous projects because that is the future of employment.

We’re seeing the economy trend more toward a gig economy, where people have the opportunity to earn income through short-term projects, gigs or tasks. In the article How the Gig Economy Will Change in 2017, Sanjay Sathe, CEO of career coaching platform RiseSmart, says he sees “gigging evolving out of traditional roles” and observes that “this can works in favor of the candidate, ‘as long as the candidates are agile enough to meet to varying demands of companies and are responsive when they receive inquiries about these gig positions.’”

While my students are working on their “gig” as Project Manager of their Passion Project, they will also need to meet the requirements of their “full-time traditional job.” The hope is that juggling gigs will help them use their learning across classes and curriculums.

3. Open the Doors

One of the benefits of a weekly day to pursue Passion Projects is the ability to open the doors of your classroom, both physically and virtually, allowing students to differentiate their coursework around their passion. This can happen via micro-credentials, where students can become “experts” via their own pathway, not just what an individual teacher can do within the confines of a classroom (read more here about Tom’s proposal for an innovation diploma requiring these).

Differentiation has never been more palpable as when the world is wide open for student exploration.

The fact is, “traditional” isn’t going to work for our students’ futures, and many adults currently in the workforce are already experiencing the need to adjust for a gig economy with businesses needing increasingly specialized skill sets. This fall I look forward to trading the traditional for the innovative, watching my students create, collaborate, organize and become experts via a multitude of pathways, preparing them for their future while engaging them in their learning and instilling habits that will stay with them.

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Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a middle school teacher at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, NY.

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1 Comment

Patti Shade

Passion Projects = passionate life-long learners! Let's all grow some this year!

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