Minding your Ps and Qs – that's Problems and Questions

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Education systems across the globe are embracing skills and project-based learning and we must keep up, says Phil Parker.

Search Google for “21st century skills” and you’ll find numerous links that show global education is shifting towards a skills-led learning paradigm.

I have just come back from China where the same drive exists. I’m working with a top performing PISA school to introduce 21st century skills into their teaching and learning. The experience has made me realise just how global this movement has become.

Let’s backtrack a moment – 21st Century Skills: Learning for life in our times by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel is well worth reading. In the prologue these American writers relate how a member of the Chinese Ministry of Education was excited by their ideas and asked where in the curriculum these skills were taught.

An American teacher’s reply made me think of our own situation in Britain. He said: “US schools have become more like those in China, focused on learning what will be tested in the big exams that determine so much of a student’s future. Our school is trying to keep the spirit of innovation and invention alive. We believe these skills are essential to being successful in our new global economy.”

The answer to the Chinese delegate’s question? The skills must exist in everything a student experiences, they must be “in the air we breathe”.

If you continue a few pages through this Google search you’ll find another little treasure. A Prezi by PISA’s Andreas Schleicher extolling the virtues of 21st century skills and how they are developing economic success for nations that commit to them. 

One of his graphs illustrates how a nation’s economy grows when more young people become researchers, with the kind of open-minded, curious and investigative mind that rote-learning kills. Britain is 15th in this league table, beaten by every one of the nations that have developed skills-led learning. 

Researchers need the mind-set that underpins much of Trilling and Fadel’s ideas, the same mind-set that encourages learners to think differently to those who are reared on a diet of teacher-directed learning.

It’s a mind-set that means addressing your Ps and Qs: learning by being given Problems to solve and Questions to ask to find solutions. It’s a mind-set easily absorbed by students when project-based learning becomes the norm, say Trilling and Fadell.

And 21st century skills are needed to facilitate this mind-set. Learning where the student explores, even defines, the nature of the problem and explores the solutions. Learning isn’t controlled by the teacher, it’s facilitated and coached. It’s a method, the writers maintain, where risk is part of the process and that failure is an acceptable part of learning.

This is why it requires bold leadership. We’re trapped in a system where failure is seen as bad, yet it is a crucial part of the enterprising global economy. Pearson and Gallop’s recent survey showed this method generates twice the likelihood students will achieve significantly greater success in their careers. Where real-world problem-solving was a part of year 11 study, learner engagement and aspirations rose significantly.

Research by Professor Linda Darling-Hammond from Stanford University reached the same conclusions: students learned more deeply when they dealt with real-world situations that had a relevance they understood; collaborative project-based learning raised achievement even more; and students were able to achieve more when they were taught how to learn, this form of meta-cognition had a profound effect on their engagement and aspirations.

So my suggestion for those teachers who want to dip their toe in the project-based learning pool is to start minding your Ps and Qs: pose your students a Problem and let them ask the Questions that will lead to answers and solutions. Trilling and Fadel provide some good examples of how this can be made to work in different subjects.

  • Phil Parker is an ex-senior leader of a successful school and is now a director of Student Coaching Ltd. Visit www.studentcoaching.co.uk


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