Learning by changing the world

Study after study has shown that the people who are most satisfied with their jobs, and indeed happiest overall, are people who feel like they are making a difference to the world. People who are working on something that they care about. We tell kids about all the problems in the world, and we hope that they will grow up to make a difference.

But why wait until they grow up?

Last night a young friend of ours was looking at a jar of cumquat syrup I had made, and wondering aloud why there was a white crust on it. I explained that it wasn’t mold (although it looks like it), it was the glucose crystallizing out. We cook with glucose rather than table sugar because we are fructose sensitive, and table sugar is half glucose, half fructose. It turns out that glucose behaves differently to ordinary sugar. Our friend was delighted with this and exclaimed “Why can’t I learn about that in science?? That’s real! It’s part of our world. We’re doing Avogadro’s number and maths in Chem at the moment. It’s so boring! Why can’t we learn about something real??? Something we can see?”

Why not indeed? I don’t think there’s any reason why you can’t cover an entire curriculum using real problems.

My year 11s work on real projects that make a difference in the world, and they consistently rate that as the best thing about my subject, but you might argue that year 11s are almost adults. They have enough skills, enough persistence, and enough maturity to work on something like this. You can’t expect to put real projects in primary school, before the kids have skills.

I believe that you can. You can set things up so that kids can make a difference in their own lives, and those of their communities, right from primary school. Imagine the sense of empowerment, and the richness of the learning that comes from interacting like this with your environment?

The new Australian Curriculum places a strong emphasis on Sustainability. So picture this as a primary school project:

Pick up all the rubbish you can find in the playground.

Separate it into different types: paper, plastic, foil, food waste, etc.

Count and weigh the different types. Measure and record the volume of the rubbish.

Calculate the amount of rubbish per person at the school.

Calculate how much more rubbish there would be at a bigger school.

Calculate how much plastic will get washed into the waterways if all schools in the catchment area drop the same amount of rubbish per person.

Calculate how much less plastic will get washed into the waterways if every student picks up one piece of plastic rubbish every day?

Here we have sustainability, weight, volume, percentages, geography (catchment areas & population), science (the different density of the different materials, the way they biodegrade (or not), etc). You can add in ICT if you record the numbers in Excel and use it to graph the percentages of types of rubbish, the rubbish per student, the amount that will biodegrade vs the amount that gets washed into storm water drains, the possibilities are endless.

Then you can add in persuasive writing by getting the students to create articles and posters using all this information to persuade people not to drop their litter, and to pick up any litter they see.

You can talk about one person’s actions seeming small, but the cumulative effect of everyone acting that way is amazing when you actually add it up (sustainability, with a bit of psychology thrown in).

And this is just one small project, covering a huge area of the curriculum, and achieving a positive environmental impact into the bargain.

Certainly projects like this exist, but at the moment they are outliers. Exciting exceptions.

We hear stories of kids who tackle science projects, generally outside the usual curriculum, and discover amazing things – like the student who developed an app to warn drivers of an approaching emergency vehicle, the student whose science project found a way for the US government to save millions of dollars by changing the font they use, the students who developed a bicycle powered water filtration system,  the teenager who developed a torch that can be powered by the heat of your hand. We think these kids are unique. Genius outliers. But they are living proof that you don’t have to be an adult with a serious job to make a difference. Imagine if we empowered all of our kids to change the world, right from the start.

There’s no reason we can’t make all of our subjects this meaningful, and let kids know that they can change the world right here, right now! Imagine teaching kids that they can make a difference. Imagine the kind of adults they might turn out to be!


About lindamciver

Australian Freelance Writer, Teacher, & Computer Scientist
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