Student and teacher work on project outdoors

Instead of using school to replicate dominant social and economic structures, can we instead create sites of transformation?

Paradigms and Nature

I recently attended a lecture by Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of the incredible book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. In her lecture, Kimmerer described two ways of relating to the natural world. The first, which she called “The Great Delusion,” involves viewing the natural world as a source of resources for extraction. This model is rooted in principles of separation, scarcity, and competition. The second paradigm is profoundly different. Instead of asking the question “What more can we take from the Earth and how efficiently?,” this paradigm asks us, “How do we play our role in the complex web of reciprocity that is the Earth?” Land becomes a set of relationships and responsibilities, rather than capital and property. This paradigm shift, as Kimmerer illustrates in her book and her teachings, is profound-- it doesn’t just change our experience, it changes our behaviors, practices, and policies.


This made me start to wonder-- what can we learn about the worldviews and assumptions that currently shape our schools? How can we use this knowledge to shape new paradigms in which all students can thrive? And what role might high-quality Project Based Learning play in this transformation?

Traditional* School as Industrial Agriculture

The goal of an industrial agricultural model is to produce the largest, most homogeneous crops of a single form (for example, many identical ears of corn) as efficiently as possible. In reality, this system is not so efficient or effective. Not only does it require farmers to use a great deal of force and resources to exert control (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc.), but over time this approach leads to a depletion of nutrients in the soil, resulting in nutritionally deficient crops that are more prone to disease and less resilient and adaptable. Finally, it results in a huge waste of resources and potential-- any organism that doesn’t match the narrow vision of what the system is designed to produce becomes a “pest” or a “weed,” and is a problem to be managed.

I would argue that our traditional approach to schooling is very similar to an industrial agricultural model-- not surprising, given the history of large-scale public schooling as a means of producing labor. We define an aspirational norm and implement systems of control that reward and penalize students according to their conformity to this norm. This shows up in countless ways-- in a numerical grading system and standardized assessment model that simplifies and quantifies “success,” in the linear ways that we sort “high achieving” and “struggling” students, in the fact that some students, but not others, are assigned “Individualized Education Plans” or behavioral modification programs. This paradigm shows up in the big and small ways that educators communicate expectations and regard to students, and then replicates itself in the ways that students learn to communicate with and value one another.

And the aspirational norm, this metric by which we assign value to the human beings in our schools, is not benign. It is shaped by systems of political, economic, and social power. What schools define as appropriate and successful behavior-- resulting in decisions about who is a “prize crop” and who is a “weed”-- both derives from and contributes to ongoing systems of oppression around race, gender, ability, language, culture, class, and other identity categories. We confuse “who has power” with “who has value” and an ethos of disposability creeps into our practices and interactions. Just like industrial agriculture, this creates an ultimately unsustainable model that leads to a tremendous waste of potential and a great deal of harm.

Shifting the Paradigm: Models of Abundance and Reciprocity

But industrial agricultural models are not the only way. In Kimmerer’s work, she celebrates the beauty, generativity, and self-regulatory power of diverse ecological polycultures. The power of these systems lies in interdependence and relationship. In a traditional Three Sisters garden of beans, corn, and squash, for example, corn provides structural support for beans, beans fix nitrogen in the soil, and the leaves of the squash plants shelter the soil, keeping it moist. The diversity of crops provides a home for a range of insects, including parasitic and predatory insects that keep crop eaters under control. All of the organisms within the system are able to thrive, and the system produces a greater variety of truly nourishing crops without the need for external mechanisms of violence and control.

How can we, as educators, move our schools closer to this paradigm? What does this require of us, and what might it look like? And what does PBL have to do with any of this? A few initial thoughts come to mind:

Valuing the unique gifts that each individual brings to the table.

In order to create a nourishing “polyculture,” we need more structures and processes that make it possible for students to bring their whole humanity to school, and that leverage rather than punish the wide-ranging ways that students think, create, process, and relate. When teachers design and facilitate projects that are open-ended, focus on a range of complex and authentic skills, that connect to students’ interests and home cultures, and offer room for student voice and choice, more students have an opportunity to share more of themselves, and to benefit from one another’s voices, gifts, and perspectives. In the best PBL classes, all students’ varied ideas and ways of working are celebrated and rewarded through ongoing reflection, feedback, and public exhibition. Instead of asking the question, “Who most closely aligns with a set standard of success?,” transformative PBL teachers can ask the question, “What makes each student special, and how do those qualities help us all to continue to grow?”

Recognizing that everyone needs something.

As noted earlier, the industrial agricultural approach leads to depletion of soil and results in food that (while conforming to the ideals of the system) lacks nutritional value. In the same way, holding students to one narrow standard of success leads to less learning for everyone, even those who conform most closely to that standard. If we are able to shift our paradigm from one in which we see some students as needing more than others to a model in which we see that everyone needs something different, we can make profound changes in how we approach learning.

One way that PBL can support this shift is by broadening the range and complexity of skills that students are asked to demonstrate in the course of a project. A student who might be considered a “high achiever” in a traditional academic context might have significant opportunities for growth in areas like creativity or collaboration. Alternatively, a student who collaborates easily with others might need support in focusing intently on specific details, or in communicating their ideas in a linear way. Transformative PBL teachers provide frequent opportunities for ALL students to reflect on, share, celebrate, and engage with their “growth edges.” PBL “polycultures” are places where that-which-is-not-yet-mastered is seen as exciting, normal, and healthy rather than shameful or hidden.

Nurturing relationship and interdependence as levers of growth.

Just as the corn, beans, and squash in a Three Sisters garden create mutually beneficial systems that help every part of the system to grow, students who work together on projects experience a system where the whole is greater than its parts. They learn that relating to one another effectively is a critical part of “getting the work done,” and so they consequently learn to do the deeper work of learning to relate to one another. When PBL is structured well and when students have repeated opportunities for engagement and reflection, they move from a place of dependence through independence to a connected and liberatory interdependence. This is not only about students leveraging their strengths and exploring their growth edges. It is also about students learning the lesson that we do not live in isolation on this planet, and that building deep, interdependent webs of accountability is a critical part of solving the problems we currently face.

Doing our own learning.

As people operating in systems (economic systems, political systems, and educational systems) that are deeply rooted in extractive paradigms and practices, we all -- adults especially-- need to engage in ongoing learning, reflection, and community-building to shift the ways we think, work, and relate to one another.

Transforming our schools requires new policies and practices, but it also requires internal transformation-- we actually need to build new neural pathways and modes of seeing. This internal liberation is the hardest, most important work we can do, and just like our students can’t explore their growth edges alone, neither can we. Reciprocal, relational, regenerative communities of practice are essential for educators, and provide us with the nourishment and nutrients we need to continue growing, changing, and creating new paradigms.


*A note about language: in this post, the term “traditional education” is used imperfectly to describe the mainstream, industrial-style educational model that has dominated in U.S. public schools for the last several centuries and that is familiar to most people who teach and learn within this system. This usage is not intended to erase or deny the existence of older (arguably, more “traditional”) educational models (particularly pre-colonial models) that may align more closely to the reciprocity paradigm.


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Sarah Field, Curriculum and Program Manager
Sarah Field joined the PBLWorks team in the Spring of 2016. As Curriculum and Program Manager, Sarah designs professional development programs for PBLWorks.