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The Sky's the Limit

May 2018

student and teacher with cardboard creation

The sky's the limit through innovative learning

Project-based learning is fueling engagement, joy in BVSD classrooms

The world is changing rapidly. Given the advances in technology and the speed of innovation, it is hard to imagine what Boulder Valley School District’s youngest students will face when they graduate high school in nearly two decades.

“We are preparing kids to work in the ever changing world, knowing that the majority of the occupations that these kids will occupy don’t even exist today,” Meadowlark School Principal Brent Caldwell said. 

“We have no clue today what we’re going to be doing two years from now,” explained Ed Schwalenberg, a product manager at Google Boulder. “Today, a lot of people at Google are working on the Google Assistant -- This little box that you talk to and say things like, ‘Ok, Google give me directions to the airport’ or ‘Ok, Google. Turn on my TV.’ That wasn’t something that was in the plans two years ago. -- but we have a lot of project managers working on it now.”

“If you’re a freshman in high school and you’re looking at an average of eight years in education before you go into the job market, what does that mean? What are people going to be doing in eight years from now? We haven’t a clue,” Schwalenberg added.

One thing is certain, education must adapt in order to keep up with the changes. 

“They used to say that adaptability was one of the top skills that students needed, but they’re moving away from that, because adaptability has the assumption that you know what the problem is,” explained Lisa Lovett, University of Colorado Boulder’s associate director for employee relations at CU Boulder Career Services. “Technology, life, business is moving at such a fast pace that we don’t know what tomorrow’s problem is, so we are now focused on agility -- because it is not knowing the problem, but knowing how to adjust what you’re doing, so you can find those problems or the solution to those things.”

VIDEO: Sir Ken Robinson - Changing Education Paradigms

The traditional model of education was founded during the industrial revolution in the image of assembly lines. 

“Our [nation’s]  traditional schools were designed in which teachers delivered the knowledge and skills people would need to work in factories. Now all the knowledge you need is available through Siri or Google at any point. It is no longer about memorizing knowledge and mastering routine skills. It is about being creative and being able to collaborate and how to communicate and how to think critically,” Caldwell said. “Some of the most innovative and high tech companies in the world are moving to Boulder because of the quality of life. They are giving us feedback that really the kids who are even coming out of college are not prepared to work in the ever-changing, adaptive and creative work world now. It is so different even than it was 5 or 10 years ago.”

“If we think about the way the world is like right now, there are still ‘9-to-5’ jobs, but it is changing, it is evolving, right?” added Katie Gambardella, a third-grade teacher at Ryan STEAM Elementary. “When these eight-year olds or nine-year olds are adults -- it is going to look very different. We have to make sure they are able to adapt and live in that world of uncomfortability and be able to have some grit and be able to problem solve, communicate with each other -- that is what they will need to be successful.”

For this reason, educators across BVSD are reworking the way they teach. While students are still learning content, the focus is now on developing skills like critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication -- that will serve them their entire lives, regardless of any changes -- through experiential learning, like problem or project-based learning.

“I think one of the most impressive things I’ve seen happen is the tight integration of strong and rigorous academic content into these projects in meaningful ways,” said Kiffany Lychock, BVSD’s director of Educational Innovations. “That is not just our older high school students … Our youngest learners are also engaging in rigorous deep thinking along with these engaging learning opportunities.”

During these projects students are encouraged to take the lead in their learning, while their teachers guide and support them. The result is learning that captivates students’ attention and sets them free to be empowered explorers.

“It gives students a sense of purpose. It has this deep sense for them of impact and doing something bigger and broader than just themselves,” Lychock said.

BVSD’s six Innovation Guiding Principles

A few years ago, Boulder Valley School District worked to define the key components that define this type of instruction for BVSD. More than 200 educators participated in the discussion, which eventually resulted in these six Innovation Guiding Principles. LEARN MORE

As shown in the accompanying videos, these principles are demonstrated in schools new and old across BVSD and in every level from kindergarten to 12th grade.

1. Learning is Founded in Inquiry

We believe that learning is a journey inspired by authentic questions. Along the journey of inquiry, learners acquire knowledge, abilities, ways of thinking, and skills that shape them for the next journey. Inquiry can be initiated by facilitators seeking to guide the journey learners towards specific knowledge and skills, or more ideally, originate with the learner. We will foster a culture in which questions are as important as answers, and every learner is challenged/encouraged to inquire.

2. Learning Fosters a Culture of Curiosity and Risk Taking

We believe that in order to succeed, we must try first. In the pursuit of understanding, learners must have the opportunity, guidance, and encouragement to take appropriate risks – expanding the limits of what they know and can do, or what might be the status quo. We support risk taking, big and small, for learners of all ages in the process of learning. We actively create a culture where curiosity is valued above rote memorization and failure in the pursuit of understanding is valued above complacency in the process of attainment.

3. Mastery of Learning Is Demonstrated in Multiple Ways

We believe there are many ways to demonstrate deep understanding and mastery of skills. Learners develop skills and demonstrate what they know in ways others can see, understand, and build upon. Learners are challenged to present their understanding verbally, visually, digitally, and by completing projects in multiple mediums. Facilitators of learning and learners themselves will use a variety of tools and measure their skills and understandings in multiple ways.

4. Learning is a Social Process

We believe learning requires interaction. When learning takes place in isolation, there is no opportunity for interaction with thoughts of others. By providing opportunities for collaboration, students use the thinking of others to inspire, improve and reflect on their own learning. Learners will seek highly effective collaboration that produces deeper, meaningful learning. We aspire to foster a culture that encourages meaningful interaction, builds communities where all learners feel safe, heard, and valued.

5. Learning is Powerful when Students Create Solutions to Authentic Challenges that Impact Their Local, National or Global Community

We believe the real world is the most relevant context in which to learn. When learners apply their knowledge and skills to challenges that impact the world they live in, they are more likely to be interested in what they are learning. Learning within authentic contexts provides students with a greater sense of purpose to their learning. We design and facilitate academically rigorous learning experiences, projects, case-studies, internships, and service learning that give learners the opportunity to make an impact on their immediate and broader communities.

6. Learning is Personalized and Learner Led

We recognize the importance of learners developing skills and capacities to exercise high levels of self-management, ownership, and accountability over their own learning. We provide learning experiences which emphasize student autonomy, choice, self-assessment, multiple iterations, active exploration, and a variety of learning modalities. Teaching methods emphasize foundation building, structured guidance, facilitation, peer-to-peer teaching and review, connections with community, and other strategies designed to make learning meaningful, relevant, engaging and effective.