/ 22 November 2020

A template for 21st century education

Graphic Edu Learning Twitter
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)


The Salesian Institute Youth Projects Learn to Live School of Skills, which provides education, shelter and emotional support for at-risk young people in the Western Cape, recently took part in the first virtual World Education Week conference where 100 schools were selected to speak on topics about learning in the 21st century. 

Learn to Live is one of just a few schools in the country piloting project-based learning methodology whereby learners investigate a problem over an extended period of time, collaborating with others to find a solution. For example, learners go through different learning spaces in a six-hour day for five days a week looking at real-world problems and solving them in an artistic way.

The department of basic education intends to institutionalise project-based learning in all schools by 2022 in a bid to reduce youth unemployment by 90% by 2030. The department’s Ria de Villiers says that “project-based learning unlocks 21st century competencies and solution-seeking mindsets so that the youth become employable, engaged and entrepreneurial”.

We know that technology is changing the way we live and work, but sometimes this disruption is the only way of recognising that something needs to change. The fourth industrial revolution means that we should all be looking to teach new skills and ways of thinking that are needed for the shifting job opportunities of the future. With this in mind, why shouldn’t we be changing the way we teach and learn?

With youth unemployment at an all-time high and so many young people not in education, employment or training, the time to shake things up in the classroom is now. 

The days of the uninspired classroom environment are gone. The role of educators is to prepare young people for the working world; to do this effectively in this day and age requires finding interactive and engaging ways to teach, promote creativity and innovation and build up the personal growth and self-esteem of learners. We must be teaching in a way that instils a love of lifelong learning in our future leaders.

How do we achieve this? Essentially, project-based learning encourages learners to think interdependently, communicate with clarity, manage impulsivity, take responsible actions and apply past knowledge to new experiences as they explore real-world problems and apply what they learn in a dynamic classroom environment. 

This set of behaviours creates better work habits and attitudes toward learning, resulting in the long-term retention of skills. Project-based learning is not an end in itself: it is a tool used to facilitate development and the learning process.

Project-based learning is a combination of the best of both Don Bosco’s preventive education system and Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of love, and its architecture is underpinned by five primary elements.

System design 

There is a need to redesign the way we teach to break the cycle of poor-quality education, so that we allow people to build far more sustainable livelihoods for themselves. As the world moves fully into the digital age, much of our education challenges are the result of system design problems that need to be upgraded.

Conceptual framework 

The conceptual framework that project-based learning employs is cultural historical activity theory. It is an educational tool that guides thinking, observing, analysis and activity in terms of “situating the activity within a greater social, historical and cultural context”, according to Cynthia Hamen Farrar. The educator manages the teaching process and empowers learners to manage their workload, whether as an individual or in a group, while considering the social, cultural and organisational issues that might influence their work.

Learning process 

An authentic learning process is a co-managed, mediated process starting with inquiry, moving on to problem solving and finally design. Learning should be an interdependent process co-created and co-produced by learners and educators. It is managed to keep people engaged.

Learning spaces

The “new classroom” also needs to speak to a world in flux and there are many areas of opportunity for youth in subjects that are not necessarily academic. 

Learn to Live has three learning spaces in which this happens – the science, technology, engineering and math space, a design or maker space and a creative space with music, art, dance and drama.

Conversational learning

This describes the need to converse more effectively. Learning is social and much of it is about conversation: doing, thinking, listening, speaking, reading and writing. In addition, multiliteracy pedagogy is a form of multimodal teaching of communications — oral, visual, audio, gestural, tactile, digital and spatial.

 Learn to live

Removing socioeconomic stressors such as food security, transport, the cost of learning materials is also an important aspect of learning. Live to Learn has been able to do this as well as provide mental health support, so that learners can find their voices. Attendance and discipline and confidence levels are improving.

Learn to Live believes that project-based learning should guide the future of education, because we see the benefits for both educators and learners.