Re-Thinking Education for the Messy 21st Century

Pupils at Reddam House Atlantic Seaboard

I think it’s safe to say that COVID-19 has taught most teachers, students and parents two important lessons. First, human connection is vital for our mental wellbeing, and second, we need to re-examine how we educate our children. Gone are the days of solving hypothetical problems in dog-eared old textbooks.

Today, education needs to be exciting and fun, and well, real, by which I mean that we need to get out of the classroom and into the world.

COVID-19 has certainly given credibility to the impactlearning model that we have been pioneering in our middle school at Reddam House Atlantic Seaboard for four years. Based on the framework that underpins project-based learning and inquiry teaching, it is a model that focuses on the impact projects can have on both students and real-world problems.

We give our students opportunities to engage with current issues facing our community while working through components of our curriculum (we make them relevant to each other). Students build relationships with real people and companies, working to solve issues such as homelessness (our focus in 2019), responsible consumption, and sustainability (the 2020 focus) and the future of our environment, particularly our oceans (our 2022 project).

Challenging situations in challenging times

Re-thinking education at Reddam HouseOur first project in 2019, involving our students directly in feeding homeless people, had a profound impact on them. They learnt more about empathy than they ever would have learnt sitting in a classroom. The initiative also won the school the Digicape Apple Excellence in Education award for Curriculum Development.

Our 2022 project is no less challenging: what is causing substantial numbers of seals to wash up dead along the West Coast of Southern Africa? The entire project hinges on that one open-ended question. From this starting point, students develop and explore questions of their own.

In fact, questioning is now used not as a basis for assessment, but as a tool for the development of curiosity. Students become immersed in the problem, identifying additional issues and the barriers to finding answers.

In the face of each barrier, students form teams that manage their own projects internally, collaborating on workable solutions to problems they have identified, and contributing to the greater issue. With their external perspective and youthful insistence, they are able to devise unique solutions and make unexpected connections.

For the seal project, our students are making important human connections. We have developed relationships with the Two Oceans Aquarium and with non-profit organisations active in this field.

We have managed to connect with the lead scientists working on the problem, we’ve looked at how we can contribute to raising funds for seal rescue and rehabilitation, and we’ve not just built relationships with separate organisations, we have also managed to link them in their efforts to solve this crisis.

The skills our students learn incidentally are skills that equip them for living in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These include networking, problem-solving, strategic thinking, curiosity, authoring persuasive e-mails, collaborative skill sharing and dynamic resource integration.

Creating connections at Reddam House Atlantic Seaboard

Creating connections

The connections students make with each other are equally important. The team work means students are given opportunities and responsibilities that use their specific skill sets or inclinations, so no matter where each person’s strengths or weaknesses lie they can participate and develop. The autodidactic self-starters generally find themselves in project management roles.

Our impact-learning projects run concurrently with bestpractice teaching to ensure that the more traditional teaching outcomes are met. Students come away with an overall picture of the value of individual subjects, alongside the ability to develop concepts that can help them understand problems and create solutions. They develop self-motivation and begin to value their own personal learning more.

The joys of impact-learning lie in the value that the projects have within the local community, and how this changes perceptions about the school, and also in the effect this form of learning has on student thinking. We are exposing our students to careers where people don’t just work for a living but work for things they feel passionate about.

We want our students to leave school not just with the mission of making money, but with the idea of making deeply satisfying lives for themselves, lives that matter. We don’t know a better way of doing this than teaching them how to make a meaningful difference in the messy reality that is the 21st century.