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Cultural connections: Students gain real-life insights with global PBL

By Tim Douglas
July 13, 2015
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In American schools, the vast majority of work is measured A to F (apologies to the letter “E,” which unofficially stands for “excluded from the grading system”).

Analyze the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Get a grade. Explain the impact and enduring relevance of The Great Gatsby. Receive valuation through alphabetization. Use Avogadro’s number to calculate the amount of pure substance. A student gets a letter.

Grades are the traditional form of measurement designed to appraise a learner’s work. They are the main way for teachers to tell students how they’re doing and whether or not they are mastering content.
We’ve long used grades to keep score, but maybe the true value of the education needs to come from the result, rather than the process. What if students learned incredible lessons about empathy and humanity while solving, examining or illuminating extraordinary problems? What if school-age children were working on projects that were possibly saving – or simply changing – lives? What if physical and mental borders were blurred by a learning approach without boundaries?
It’s happening. With stunning outcomes.

Sparking deep learning

Last year, fourth grade students at Wallenpaupack South Elementary School in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, started to wonder why most clothes weren’t made in the United States. This basic question sparked the curiosity that turned into research, and what they discovered shocked them.

They learned that clothes are made by kids around the world, and usually these young people work in terrible conditions for very little money and do not attend school. They learned that, worldwide, roughly 250 million children are forced to work as child laborers. They learned that these children, just like them, are the most vulnerable in our world’s society. But perhaps most important, they learned about connecting. They discovered that children in India were working on this problem because it was happening in their own country, and the Pennsylvania students decided to help, embarking on an empowering journey with their peers thousands of miles away to create an effective and elaborate awareness campaign to stop child labor.

For elementary school students in the Highland Falls-Fort Montgomery Central School District in Highland Falls, New York, their virtual field trips have led them to China, where they learned Mandarin and taught English via videoconferencing, and participated in show and tell with the Chinese students through a secure, online portal. They also “travel” to the far reaches of the galaxy, as they continue to learn about spiders in space with other students from around the world via wikis.

These students – and thousands more like them – are reaping the many benefits of global project-based learning, which is heavily supported by technology.

Real-life lessons

“What we need to do in schools is prepare children for real life,” says Andrea Tejedor, director of innovation and instructional technology for the Highland Falls-Fort Montgomery district. “Global project-based learning helps students appreciate that we all – everyone in the world – bring something different to the table, and being different is good.”

According to the Buck Institute for Education, project-based learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem or challenge. The institute also explains that PBL needs to include a variety of essential elements: significant content (students acquire knowledge and skills), 21st century competencies (problem-solving in today’s world and critical thinking), in-depth inquiry (asking the right questions and getting answers), driving questions (which focuses the learning), need to know (the need to gain knowledge), voice and choice (students get to decide, within reason, what they will create), critique and revision (extensive feedback), and public audience (the work is presented beyond the classroom).
Most experts would probably agree that this is a thorough, straightforward definition of PBL and global PBL, but the real power lies in the practice, and it’s a game changer in education – especially when applied across continents – that leads to much deeper understanding.

“Students are identifying problems in the world and working toward solving them, which is very important, of course,” says Michael Soskil, the head teacher and curriculum coach at Wallenpaupack South Elementary School. “But they are also seeing the good they are doing and want to do more. Kids understand they are learning for a reason, and they connect with this idea for life.”

Rooted in neuroscience

Soskil adds that it’s science – neuroscience, in fact – where learning is stored in long-term memory when a child emotionally connects with the lesson being taught. This is why his primary aim is to facilitate these connections through global PBL by allowing students to feel the joy that comes through helping others.
Livingstone Kegode is a teacher in Nairobi, Kenya, who believes deeply in PBL’s value. He says it’s a joy for his students on a powerful level, and as technology shrinks our planet, we will benefit more than we can imagine.

“My kids feel they have friends in different countries, not just fellow students working on a problem,” he writes in an email. “This makes them feel loved, thus making the world feel like a village. Global collaboration promotes peace around the world and makes us work as a team.

Support for learning while doing

There are many coaches to help these teams. Julie Lindsay, a global collaboration consultant based in Australia, serves as the director of Flat Connections, which “provides resources, skills, strategies and access to ‘learning while doing’ in a global context through innovative pedagogy and online digital technologies,” and is dedicated to taking education from local to global.

Lindsay, an ISTE member and former ISTE board member who is also writing a book about global education, leads workshops and webinars that range from helping audiences get started with global collaboration to curriculum design for global learners who are already engaged.

Flat Encounters is another service that provides an opportunity for challenge-based learning in a conference, challenge or workshop format. These are dynamic events that feature students, teachers and administrators working together to brainstorm, pitch and then create solutions to global problems. These solutions are then shared using multimedia and other avenues.

All the “flat” references are by design because, as the Flat Connections website states, the goal is to challenge teachers to “flatten your classroom walls to bring the world in and take you and your students out to the world for meaningful collaborations.”

“Students do realize that learning can be flat and connected, and technology is ubiquitously available for this,” Lindsay says. “When this is taken away from them, they feel disconnected and isolated. This is what students have told us after taking part in the Flat Connections Global Project work for one semester…the next semester they returned to non-flat classes and did not like it!”

TakingITGlobal empowers youth to understand and act on the world’s greatest challenges. From projects like Commit2Act, which encourages people to perform small actions to have big impacts, to DeforestACTION, which is a global collaborative project to stop deforestation around the world, TakingITGlobal works with students to organize an array of activities online and through technology to tackle complex problems.

Michael Furdyk, co-founder and director of technology at TakingITGlobal, says that creating empathy and actions that benefit our planet, driven by worldwide collaboration, will also lead to a better global economy.
“My 3-year-old son is now using the worst technology he will ever use,” says Furdyk, who has appeared on “Oprah” and presented at TED. “We need to continually connect our kids to the world via technology to help them care about learning and people, and to be competitive in the job market. Jobs of the future will require deeper engagement and attachment.”

More to do

As proof, Furdyk cites a report titled the “Global Skills Gap,” which was conducted on behalf of Think Global and the British Council. The study, based on interviews with 500 executives in the United Kingdom, was commissioned to determine how business leaders feel about global thinking and how important it is for job seekers to have this skill in the future. The study finds that “the vast majority of businesses think it is important for schools to be helping young people to think more globally and lead more sustainable lives…and that schools should be doing more: 93 percent of businesses think it is important for schools to help young people develop the ability to think globally; 80 percent think schools should be doing more; and only 2 percent think they should be doing less.”

To Soskil, there are many instruments we can use to tear down walls, open children’s hearts and minds, and create better world citizens.

“We have great tools that are already in place,” he says. “Skype in the Classroom, for instance, is a great resource, but here is the best part: This is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve only had these free and easy videoconferencing services for less than a decade. I can’t wait to see what’s next.”
In fact, one of Soskil’s favorite exercises is Mystery Skype, where two classrooms “Skype” each other and try to guess the location of the other by asking a series of yes/no questions.

Tejedor agrees, adding that connection has never been easier.

“Everyone has a phone. We carry incredible technology in our pocket,” she says. “The future is here. There should be nothing stopping us from doing this.”

Backed by the ISTE Standards

It’s no accident that the ISTE Standards for Students that assist students in navigating the tech-powered world in which they live support the global PBL approach.

These standards call for students to engage in creativity and innovation; communication and collaboration; research and information fluency; and critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making, all hallmarks of PBL.

When engaging in a global PBL project, educators can turn the ISTE Standards to determine student skill levels and to ensure students are able to use technology to analyze, explore and contribute.

Prepare for pitfalls

There are some real pitfalls to implementing global PBL, which ISTE experienced while researching this report. Kegode replied to questions and comments via email out of necessity. When we attempted a Google Hangout, Kegode couldn’t participate because of a power outage, which he says is common in Kenya and also leads to other issues.

“When we miss Skypes or Hangouts with other schools, it makes them frustrated,” he wrote. “Then this makes us unreliable and we sometimes lose collaboration.”

Kegode also explains that the time difference can be problematic, as well as a lack of understanding of technology among teachers and directors. But the most serious hurdle is hunger and making sure kids have their basic needs met first.

“Many schools in Kenya cannot afford to pay for and sustain the internet,” he says. “Schools often need to invest in other things like basic learning material and food for our learners.”

Lindsay adds that it’s important to be mindful of timelines and expectations to minimize hiccups.
“Completing a global interaction and project that includes student collaboration does not happen in two to three weeks,” she says. “By the time you have holidays across different countries and other typical school-based interruptions, it’s more like eight to 12 weeks or even longer.”

Still, as Kegode states, it’s worth persisting because “global PBL is a great benefit to a student. It’s necessary because it makes them work hard, think wide and share what they know.”

Creating giant leaps

Yet for generations, the learning experience has remained largely unchanged. Students attend school, sit in class and listen to the teacher, who stands before the pupils and explains the lesson with the help of a whiteboard, blackboard, overhead projector or other 20th century tools.

There is nothing wrong with this approach, per se, but as the world progresses, industries should evolve, too. Old habits die hard, however, and education is like any other system: Change is slow.

Leaders need to emerge and spread ideas before the beginning steps transform into giant leaps.

“I encourage educators to find one way to try [global PBL],” says Tejedor. “Nothing radical, not a major overhaul – just a simple connection, like between Maine and Florida. Engage students differently. Try something new.”

“Most people get into education for all the right reasons, and while some may feel like they’ve lost their spark, those reasons are always there,” adds Soskil. “We can use [global PBL] to remind them why they got into this profession and to inspire.”

Educators need not go it alone. There is room for multiple partners. Global PBL shouldn’t just focus on the relationship between student, teacher and school. Everyone – business leaders, elected officials, etc. has a part to play.

“Really, what better lesson is there?” Soskil asks. “Find people who are doing good in the world and connect them with kids who want to do good. We need to get beyond the education world.”

Get intentional, then act

And while technology is an integral component of collaboration, there needs to be comprehensive and intentional thinking in advance. In other words, learners and teachers need to do their homework before they hit the computer and the device.

“I don’t want students to simply Google something,” Tejedor says. “I want them to dig deeper … find some experts, find the communities, find the best people to talk to and share with. These are the types of connections that lead to real outcomes.”

Meanwhile, the work continues and the efforts grow. TakingITGlobal has launched Future Friendly Schools, which is a network that, according to Furdyk, will help educators measure and deepen their engagement in using technology and global PBL to develop global citizenship, environmental stewardship and student voice in their schools.

In addition to following the plight of the spiders in space, Tejedor’s students will soon connect with their counterparts in Brazil and Turkey to compare their school days – the differences and similarities – through videos.

Flat Connections is facilitating several global projects, including youth debates where students engage in authentic discussion to foster global competence.

Soskil has been a speaker at the United Nations Social Innovation Summit and will continue to spread the word at a variety of conferences. His students – the ones who are part of the child labor awareness campaign – will also continue to share because they learned lessons they will never forget.

And isn’t this the whole point?

“The goal is to not just adopt global collaboration or PBL for some aspects of the school day,” Lindsay says. “We need to encourage interdisciplinary projects that connect students for a wide variety of reasons to each other and to others. These learning outcomes are far superior to reading a textbook, and last longer. In fact, students become the textbook for each other.”

Give that idea an “A.”