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Exploring the Intersection of PBL and Gen Z

by Thom Markham

Wed Apr 8, 2020

transformation culture change
1195 Words

Delve into the intersection of project-based learning, Generation Z, and the resurgence of moral courage with Headrush Learning LMS.

It’s not just an online moment for education. Something bigger has happened. Industrial schooling is officially over.

Perhaps it doesn’t appear so. Teachers have done amazing work to rapidly load brick and mortar lessons onto digital platforms, set up class schedules, organize methods to collect homework, and busily teach at a distance. It’s assumed that in a matter of time, life will return to normal, schools will open, and the normal routine of lesson delivery, compliance and testing will resume.

But will it? No. One clue is the deafening cheers worldwide from educators celebrating the cancellation of high stakes tests. Who knew how much they yearned for release from those tests? That genie will never go back in the bottle.

Second, teachers have rediscovered what it means to be a teacher. Teachers report high levels of challenge and exhaustion as they go online and search for the right platform and methods, but the freedom to reinvent has brought a revived sense of purpose and collegiality to the profession. How this taste of freedom translates back in the classroom is unknown. But prepare for newly empowered teaching force.

Third, a still invisible phenomenon: Brains are being rewired. Each day that 850 million students attend ‘school’ online while experiencing crisis accelerates the dissembling of the herd mentality and the formation of a global tribe with a revived collective consciousness. Expect unsettling repercussions.

And, it’s all good. In a few short weeks, the Black Swan event has accomplished more than 30 years of handwringing and hectoring could ever do. A much-needed set of new learning practices is on the rise, meaning more freedom for students, a revised skillset for teachers, and a rebuilt infrastructure.

How will the transformation play out, particularly if COVID-19 turns out to be the first crisis, not the last? What can we expect? For myself, I foresee three phases.


In Phase One, teachers learn to use the tools of the digital age to explore alternative ways to learn, but still think like brick and mortar instructors. After a few weeks of novelty, this approach fails. Work does not get done. Online games resume. Without the whip of a teacher’s voice, fear of testing, and outdated standards as tools for compliance, low level brick and mortar lessons lose their appeal. Everyone shrugs because, “Well, it’s just temporary.”

The virus threat fades and students return to the fold. Schools reinstate routines and testing, talk up university admissions, and reinforce the rules. But something new is in the air. Students have made a silent decision not to trade freedom for a seat in a row of desks. Teachers persist but students resist.

The solution: Go hybrid. Subjects stay in silos and grade level ‘expectations’ remain but flipped learning and more offloading of core skill subjects to the internet is allowed. Yet it’s like an avalanche. Despite efforts to modernize, standards slip while test scores drop. Handwringing resumes. Yet to all but a few political leaders the hollowness and disconnect of a standardized curriculum is obvious.


Students notice. There seems to be a vacuum in adult guidance. Another crisis piles on. Energized by their newfound release from the four walls of school both metaphorically and in practice — young people mobilize and apply the constructivist powers of the internet and apps to produce novel work unrestricted by the normal workflow of essays and quizzes.

It does not take long for youth to realize that Instagram is not their only link. Their conversations cross borders as they and their teachers discover online resources from across the globe. Gen Z, and their younger brethren Gen Alpha, mimic Millennials and begin to band together, collaborating online in unprecedented numbers. As they find each other, they discover, perhaps quite abruptly, that they share a common world, with common threats from viruses, climate change, a common distrust of leaders, and lack of innovation in institutions and communities — all at once. A formidable bloc of under-30 citizens, including teachers, endorses rebellion. From that point, it’s a short distance to critically questioning — and finally disposing of — a system of learning devised by adults for a faded world.

Purposeful learning

If adults do it right and don’t spend all their energy trying to drag youth back into the fold, Phase Three unveils itself — and it could be a good one. The old ‘hand it in, hand it back’ culture is dead. What replaces it? That will the choice.

The best choice is let learning flow in its natural direction toward the problems of the day. In this phase, students hit their stride but so do educators. A new version of ‘school’ emerges that supports the global tribe digitally and face to face. Teachers truly move into the role of facilitators. Education becomes a co-creative act rooted in project-based work (PBL) and design thinking. But it’s not the brick and mortar version of PBL used with varying levels of success now. It’s a powerful, field-tested model refined for online work that replicates the human-centered design process by which the world moves forward. It focuses on authentic problems, commits participants to innovation, blends core knowledge with skillfulness, and values openness, inquiry, and deep collaboration.

Now, we’re wide awake. Adults worry, for good reason, that successive
breakdown and crisis have tested the inner life of children as never before. Back in the day, brick and mortar wall posters advocating virtuous behavior
sufficed. But the world revolves on a new axis. Helping young people learn to contribute, find satisfaction in helping fellow humans thrive, and supporting their ability to stand up to adversity — the realms of resilience and moral courage — are paramount outcomes and must be built into learning.

That’s when we discover a Holy Grail: Education shifts to people development and refocuses on character and human strengths. Again, project based work turns out to be the perfect tool. As youth partner with a caring, knowledgeable mentor, project based work informed by strengths-based psychology proves to duplicate the conditions under which humans grow up to be healthy adults. The co-creative partnership between mentor and student fuels challenge, purpose, autonomy, and mastery — the exact elements cited by youth experts as best indicators for life success.

Of course, if all the dissolution and disruption of the present phase is to yield real results, one more phase must occur: Crowd sourcing collective solutions that yield a livable, positive future. That’s why unleashing the creative energies of the 1.3 billion youth worldwide who are waiting for a redesigned world is critical. Transformation will take us there, if allowed.

This blog was originally published on PBL Global

Considered one of the founding fathers of Project Based Learning, Thom Markham is an educator by trade, a positive psychologist by training, and a global entrepreneur dedicated to expanding educator mindsets in service to a positive future. In 2015, Thom founded PBL Global, a world-wide partner-based organization offering online courses and onsite professional learning for a transformative strengths-focused model of project based learning that integrates high quality project design, student centered growth, and social emotional wellbeing. Thom has worked with over 400 schools and 6000 teachers in 20 countries.

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