Throughout my career, I have changed the way that I teach to my students. With access to the internet, I recognized that students don’t need for me to “teach” anymore; what they need is for me to be a facilitator of knowledge; they need to see me scaffold how to do research and employ critical thinking skills, to help them understand how to be truly and equally collaborative in group settings, and spark in them a sense of belonging to a larger world community.
The focus of my classroom is Project-Based Learning. PBL is the tool that allows me to cultivate these essential skills with my students: collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and empathy. These skills are what will be useful to our students as they enter the global workforce. It is clear that they will be called upon in the near future to solve immense global challenges, and in preparation for these challenges, I ask them to solve real world problems in a very authentic manner. From designing a cell-based sensor for early detection of an Ebola infection, to creating recipes for the World Food Bank to aide the global food crisis, to using cellular respiration/photosynthesis as a platform to research and propose solutions to our energy problems, my students are thinking, designing, researching, and intelligently proposing solutions to very real world issues.
To allow my students the grace and the space they need to meet these challenges, you could say that my classroom is “messy”. My students are on different parts of this same journey to attainment of these skills and because of that, my classroom at any given time can appear to be very chaotic. I allow my students to learn at their own pace and ask them to personally critique their knowledge before moving on to the next learning goal. Because of this, it is not uncommon for my students to be spread out in small groups, talking to each other or on their computers/phones; they are discussing and debating their ideas and seeking the knowledge they need to move forward. To me, this is what true learning looks like.
This kind of learning is uncomfortable for my students at first. They like to have parameters and expectations to meet. PBL does not give that to them; it is open-ended and free to their interpretation. However, by the end of the year, my students have learned to believe in themselves and their ability to think and debate real issues. I have had students move on from my class and pursue degrees in medicine and science education, I currently have students submitting their PBL research to scientific journals for publication, and I even have students who pursue research experiences around the world; in short, I am teaching my students to think, to question, to believe in themselves, and to grow as humans. As an educator in this transitional time, that is all that I can ask of them, and they exceed my expectations every single time.