Schools That Work for the Future


I had the opportunity to travel to Japan last year to speak to groups of Japanese educators about changes in education targeted at better meeting the needs of students in the 21st century.  The perspective I was asked to share, specifically, was how my school was implementing a multi-disciplinary, project-based learning model, and why we were doing this.

As I visited schools in and around Tokyo, I met with numerous teachers and administrators committed to education reform that will foster individuality and creativity while at the same time maintaining respect for harmony as part of the Japanese culture.  No small task considering the challenge of deeply held cultural norms which have traditionally placed paramount importance on the individual’s place within the organization.

Interestingly, education reformers in Japan appear to be seeking less centralized control, less uniformity of curriculum, and more individualization of instruction, while American reform efforts over the past 20 years or so have been more targeted at seeking a greater measure of commonality in the curriculum.

So, as I shared the instructional model we were implementing at Asia Pacific International School (APIS), I focused on the following question:

How can schools best educate students in the 21st century where our children are facing an uncertain and rapidly changing future?  

First, I think we recognize that there are still important foundational skills and content knowledge, but simply acquiring knowledge is no longer enough to prepare our students for success in a changing workplace and increasingly global economy.  So, we build everything within this framework of rigorous academic standards, but recognize that what students are able to do with the academic content is actually more important than the content itself.

This is nothing new, most teachers I know have always tried to provide some connection between the world outside of school and what is being learned inside, but I think we have to go beyond making a few real-world connections for students in the 21st century.  For the bulk of formalized, public education, students lived in an environment of information scarcity, and schools were the holders and transmitters of information. The 21st Century, however, is characterized by information abundance, where the average student has access to more information through their smart phone than any teacher, set of textbooks, or school library could ever offer.  For students to be successful in the 21st Century, schools must focus on things like Synthesis and application of knowledge in meaningful projects.  What we found at APIS was, “The more meaningful the application of learning to the student, the greater the intrinsic motivation, and therefore the deeper the learning tended to be.”

I have an image for what we should see when we look at our students in school, and each day this image becomes more and more a reality.   This vision is:

  • A group of students of different ages and experience
  • Joyfully & effectively working together
  • Committed to solve a problem that matters


As much as possible, we start with projects that students are passionate about and that give them the opportunity to do something meaningful to impact their lives, the campus, the community, or the world.  We then map our adopted curriculum standards from Common Core ELA, Next Generation Science, Social Studies, and Common Core Math to be addressed within the context of the multi-disciplinary project.  This has a transformational effect on the level of student engagement and the depth of understanding.

Project-based learning, however, is not the best practice for every situation or learning goal. There will always be some things that are best approached through a more traditional classroom instructional model to ensure critical concepts and skills are mastered.  Throughout the project process, teachers convene mini-lessons and check for understanding through a variety of more traditional assessment models.  But this is always targeted at providing the necessary intellectual capital or base skills necessary to competently apply learning in the context of a meaningful project.  It’s about picking the best instructional practice for the learning goal.

At APIS, and the majority of multi-disciplinary, Project-based schools I have visited, mathematics courses are provided a stand-alone period of instruction due to the highly sequential nature of the content learning.  Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science each require some level of sequential learning, but the majority of content standards and learning goals can be scheduled much more flexibly throughout the school year.  Despite this stand-alone period for math instruction, it is still important for the multi-disciplinary, project-based blocks to collaborate with math teachers to connect what is happening in the math class to projects wherever possible.

It is also important for the multi-disciplinary blocks to be complemented by targeted instruction in visual and performing arts, world languages, and technology, as these are important for 21st century learners in the conceptual age where creativity and technology drive a global, innovation economy.  According to the United Nations Creative Economy Report, “Widening local development pathways”:

The creative economy –which includes audiovisual products, design, new media, performing arts, publishing and visual arts– is not only one of the most rapidly growing sectors of the world economy, it is also a highly transformative one in terms of income generation, job creation and export earnings.

When schools provide students the opportunity to connect the academic and creative disciplines in the context of meaningful projects, we begin to transform learning and empower students to not only grow academically and personally, but to also discover their potential to make a difference in the world.

It’s about,

  • A group of students of different ages and experience
  • Joyfully & effectively working together
  • Committed to solve a problem that matters

Continuum of Purpose

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