This article, written by Jason Flom, is cross-posted on Ecology of Education
In such an integrated world, where the reverberations of problems and solutions ripple far beyond their localized sources, we must learn to think in terms of systems (called systems thinking), to see beyond compartmentalized events, and work with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures toward common goals.
That’s a tall order for a human race often short on patience, tolerance, and understanding.
Additionally, thoroughly analyzing influencing factors beyond the immediate manifestation of a problem is often impossible alone, and cannot be attained by accident. Successful systems thinking requires both critical faculties and collaborative cooperation. Helping students navigate that balance is part of our responsibility as educators: it must be intentionally taught, cultivated, and prioritized.
Project Learning can provide much of the framework and substance for learning skills farther up Bloom’s taxonomy. However, simply providing students with projects and experiences is akin to drinking decaf coffee: its got the taste without the kick.
What’s the kick? Reflection and skill development.
Learning that prepares students for identifying, evaluating, and tackling problems that cross over systems and cultural boundaries must be diversified. No one style or approach can possibly cover the gazillions of options. Students need opportunities to immerse themselves in sweeping projects in which they apply a broad range of skills.
But they also need opportunities to learn, practice, and hone specific skill sets. Exploring and finding the balance between integrated projects and separate skill development should be a primary objective for both reflective practitioners and innovative administrators.
The problem we face today is the over-emphasis on what one of my students’ parents referred to as “the low hanging fruit” — basic skills. With almost exclusive focus on filling a student’s tool box with testable skills (without accompanying opportunities to employ those tools in novel and complex situations), we risk sacrificing holistic, integrated, and systems thinking in order to hold teachers and schools accountable. The sacrifice results in not just bland teaching and irrelevant schooling — the real consequence is that we inadvertently limit the potential of our students.
The compartmentalizing of all skills and learning makes for a cubicle education, while outside the schoolhouse doors students are living in an iPhone world.
Perhaps that is the perfect compliment — isolated schooling and integrated living? With today’s students forever connected to one another through sprawling digital networks, perhaps they are learning systems thinking themselves, and it is only the basic skills they need from schools.
I, myself, am not ready to gamble that. For now, I’ll continue to build curriculum around broad scope projects, breaking them down into bite size, skill development chunks, doing my best to take advantage of integrated living through an understanding the pieces.