From education to employment

Why Project Based Learning prepares students for the modern world

The business of creativity 

If you’re new to education and haven’t discovered the most watched TED talk of all time ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ by Sir Ken Robinson I would highly recommend it. Back in 2006 Sir Ken delivered this presentation to a small audience in California. To date it has now been viewed by tens of millions of people, more than similar talks by Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs combined. Sir Ken’s core contention that ‘creativity is as important now as literacy and numeracy and should be given the same status’ clearly resonated, and not just with educators. In a recent study by PwC titled ‘The talent challenge: Harnessing the power of human skills in the machine age’ some of the most sought after skills needed in business such as adaptability, creativity and innovation are apparently the hardest to find, and most prized, in what is referred to as ‘today’s skills battleground’. As someone who runs a number of companies, this feels true. To solve the global challenges we face, creativity clearly isn’t optional. As a generalisation the business world seems to get this, yet despite the influence and reach of Sir Ken Robinsons thought leadership there remains a major disconnect between thinking and doing when it comes to aligning creativity in education with industry.

My contention is that this challenge is not surprising given the dominance of an industrial model of standardised education whose structures and ways of working are often somewhat anathema to creating the very skills the world clearly needs. Thinking about our best opportunities to change this for the better finding your way to ‘project based learning’ is a natural and likely destination. When looking at the world as it is now, and to augment the famous quote from Sir Ken, my contention is that project based learning is as essential as creativity now, and should be given the same status. 

Sir Ken once defined creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value” noting its difference to imagination which he defined as the ability to bring to mind things that aren’t present to your senses. When Sir Ken said “I think of creativity as putting your imagination to work” in a very literal sense this couldn’t be more relevant to where we are today, because now more than ever the business world needs creative people who can do exactly that. I read that Sir Ken Robinson was once told by a Government Minister that we can’t move to a creativity framework in education until we have ‘fixed’ numeracy and literacy to which he replied ‘That’s like saying let’s make a cake, and if it’s all right, we’ll put the eggs in”. As I look at the intersection between education and the world of work, this feels like where we are now. 

My view is that we can’t wait for Governments to fix things or for other people to sort this out if young people are to have the life chances they deserve. I’m a believer in community powered innovation, and education is a hell of a community. There is urgency for transformation in the context of where we are now and educators are impatient for it. In many ways a ground up movement for change has already begun. 

The Covid19 pandemic has forced innovation unlike anything we have ever seen. In a recent report I had the privilege to work on titled ‘New, Next, or Never Normal?’ one CEO commented “We’ve seen more innovation in five weeks than in five years”. Indeed we have. This unprecedented disruption (at least in recent times) represents an opportunity to reimagine education. Let’s not waste it. When we explore progressive approaches to how we live, work and learn, my contention is that project based learning provides an approach that aligns perfectly with what the world needs now. People who are open minded, adaptable, innovative and can solve problems with natural leadership enabled through collaboration will help to co-create future prosperity through ideas that have value. For those who fear technology there is some assurance here in the fact that computers may have memory but they lack imagination and the ability to apply it, and it’s our collective imaginative capacities that will secure our future and a better world.

For students, project based learning provides a well established, proven and impactful pedagogical toolkit for people to ‘put their imaginations to work’ in Sir Ken’s Robinsons words. Since project based learning provides students with the opportunity to actively engage in applying their imaginative capacities to authentic projects that have personal meaning it seems like the perfect alignment between learning communities and real world impact.

Both creativity and project based learning are big areas and this short, simple article cannot go into depth or do justice to either, so to expedite my high level contention I turned to a learned friend and one of the foremost experts I know on the subject to explain it. David Price OBE is a speaker, trainer, best selling author (his international best seller OPEN was voted most influential education book by Goodreads) and expert trainer in project based learning among wider credits, so David was top of my list to call.

When thinking about the value of project based learning, I asked David why it makes sense in the context of the world as it is now.

David said “Project-based learning is an idea whose time has come, gone, and come back around again. In the 1920s, John Dewey was advocating for learning by doing. Then in the 1980s and 1990s – at precisely the time when it had become ‘the way we do things’ in businesses – the teaching of it was tarnished by sloppy un-scaffolded teaching, of which educators were, naturally, suspicious. The turn of the century saw a much tighter delivery, thanks to innovators like High Tech High and Expeditionary Learning. Whatever unproven concerns might linger among English educators, we have two clanging alarm-bells: 

  1. Many other countries in the world have aligned learning with work through PBL – why are we dragging our heels? 
  2. The coronavirus – and the subsequent exams fall-out – have graphically demonstrated that our students are increasingly being judged by employers, in the words of Google, “not by what they know, but by what they can do with what they know”. 

Add to that, the reality that employer reliance upon qualifications, when making entry-level appointments, has fallen from 75% in 2014, to 52% in 2019, and you have a strong case for producing students who manage projects, not fill in worksheets. Our problem is that so few educators know how to deliver PBL, through a lack of training opportunities.” 

David’s contention about employers relying less on exam scores certainly feels right to me. Looking at what the world of industry needs it’s not hard to see how a linear standardised learning process is unlikely to add value to complex business challenges. In the report “Creativity’s bottom line: How winning companies turn creativity into business value and growth” the authors evidence how creative organisations perform better when set against comparators using a set of defined metrics. The messages from the McKinsey report are consistent with many other articles. In ‘Creativity is the skill of the future, and it’s not just for creative teams’ by WeWork the author states “in the workplace, creativity happens any time an employee thinks of a novel way to solve a problem” and this for me is the crucial point. It’s new thinking, enabled by cross disciplinary perspectives aligned to real world challenges that’s needed. When we explore how to best enable this, the intersection of creativity and project based learning becomes more obviously critical. 

In the article “Why Creativity is the Most Important Skill in the World” Head of Academic and Government Marketing for LinkedIn Paul Petrone makes the argument that the ability to think more creatively is essential throughout your career, noting that macroeconomic trends suggest creativity will only become more important. Indeed it was most recently ranked #1 in terms of the skills that companies need most in 2020 by LinkedIn and in the top three by The World Economic Forum.

There are many similar reports, articles and research making similar arguments too numerous to list here but all of which amplify the core contention of this article that project based learning is one of the best techniques we have to enable learning that’s aligned to what the world needs. Despite this, currently in the UK when it comes to curriculum design, project based learning remains far from the norm. So what’s stopping us? As David Price points out, our problem is that so few people seem to know about it.

Thinking of the businesses I’m involved in, I struggle to think of a single business challenge we manage where a standardised approach would yield results (although of course there are business contexts where it would, fast food is but one example).  That said and to be clear, PBL is no panacea and if applied without the right training and development, as with many things, it could actually have negative consequences as David illustrates. However with the right expertise in terms of support to plan and manage it, project based learning provides one of the best solutions we have to enable people to transform their life chances.

When the Covid19 pandemic arrived educators were innovating like never before. They didn’t wait for the cavalry, they were the cavalry and just got on with it adapting at speed, overcoming new obstacles and challenges as they emerged. The power of community driven ingenuity cannot be overstated. I see it daily in the companies I help to run where people with a common purpose may swarm around a project for a moment in time, applying multi-disciplinary perspectives and diverse skills to solve a common challenge. It works. It’s what we expect in our businesses from the people we work with and frankly graduates without any prior experience of working like this will be at a disadvantage to those who have that experience. 

For those seeking a little assurance that project based learning is not only ok to try but might help with their next quality inspection, there is no shortage of evidence. For example researchers at the University of Michigan found direct causality between PBL and increased student achievement and you can find many other similar studies.

As the business world knows that creativity is good for the bottom line, educators need to ensure that students are gaining the skills necessary for the world as it is now, not how it once was. I would therefore encourage leaders in education to consider building elements of PBL into every curriculum area to enhance the employability of students. Tethering learning to compartments can restrict creative thinking, problem solving and learner agency in a way that does not align to the future journey beyond school and college. I can’t emphasise this enough. I’m often asked if I can offer apprenticeships or jobs and in short the answer is more likely to be yes if I’m presented with candidates who can evidence the characteristics that form project based learning. Creative thinking and collaborative problem solving are very high on my list. The ability to work in isolation or regurgitate a fact I can Google is most definitely not.

Contrast a standardised and compartmentalised way of learning with the collaborative approach of project based learning and the potential to provide more meaningful learning experiences for the next generation is clear. Ultimately if the students achieve successful outcomes, nobody can stop you. The inconvenient truth for those with a vested interest in standardised regimes is that project based learning can enable exactly that, and the evidence is there for those who seek it out.

Project based learning combines creativity with the essential skills needed in the modern world. It’s what we do in business every day, so it makes sense to start in education. 

Jamie E Smith, Executive Chairman, C-Learning

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