What’s the best way to teach a child? The better question is, what’s the most effective way a child learns?
Lagging student achievement is not new. As schools grapple with declining test scores caused by the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, education leaders need to find a solution.
Schools nationwide have been using project-based learning to better reach kids. Students identify real-world problems — like climate change or food scarcity — and then research solutions and present their findings. The goal is for students to acquire knowledge and problem-solving skills, instead of focusing on traditional learning by sitting in rows and memorizing facts.
Students make all the decisions. Teachers? They’re along for the ride.
Sometimes the best lesson is for adults to shut up, stand to the side and let kids take charge. Leaders in the Village of Malverne did just that when a group of high school students, following the model of project-based learning in curriculums across the country, sought to rename a street honoring a former Ku Klux Klan leader.
Over a few years, students researched the topic, petitioned school and village officials several times, and built a community-level outreach program. The result? Lindner Place was renamed Acorn Way in January. The new name is a nod to Malverne’s motto, “Oaks from acorns.”
Certainly, there were other people involved, from civic leaders to community activists. And they came from nearby Lakeview and West Hempstead as well as the village. But children were at the forefront.
This wasn’t a school assignment or an application booster for college. Students came up with the idea. They did the research and spoke to village leaders at public meetings. No one told them they had to do this. Students identified and researched a problem, created solutions, and persuaded the public they were right.
Not only was the Acorn Way renaming a great example of students learning through project-based learning, but it also improved the community. Gone is a street sign celebrating a person who believed in hate. And while Paul Lindner was influential in the village’s history, the evil he promoted cannot be overlooked.
The Acorn Way street renaming garnered national attention, a clear indication of the impact children can have on the world. There are examples of children solving problems all around us by way of PBL — from a high school girl in Bellport who raised money and then helped build a water-filtration system for an all-girls school in Pakistan, to a high school boy in Las Vegas who created a nonprofit that collects and donates shoes.
There are virtually innumerable ways kids can volunteer at almost any age. Parents can reach out to local or national and international groups for ideas. Better still, ask a child what he or she would do to make the world a better place.
Educators are deeply concerned about learning in the 21st century. American schoolchildren continue to lag behind those in dozens of other countries in math and science. Certainly there are other measures of student learning, but the decline remains troubling.
The latest focus is on what are called the 4 C’s of 21st-century learning: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. Project-based learning is the epitome of this concept. The Malverne students took it further by adding “community.”
Is the purpose of an education to get a job and make money? Or is it something more meaningful? By allowing students to guide their own learning, the greater Malverne community is a better place — not only now, but in the future.
More students will follow the example of those in Malverne, and more communities will be made better places. Schools can continue to expand PBL throughout all grades to encourage students to explore problems and solutions. Communities can offer competitions to entice students to solve problems. Parents can pose open-ended questions to push their child’s critical thinking.
There are more opportunities like this in every town. Schools, community leaders, and others should spread the story of Acorn Way to encourage more children to explore problems and solutions.
All we have to do is get out of their way.