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by Sarah Field
Curriculum and Program Manager

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September 11, 2017
“Another World is Possible”: PBL and Visionary Thinking

by Sarah Field
Curriculum and Program Manager

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” - Arundhati Roy

Lately I have been wondering if the questions we ask of ourselves and of our students are big enough. We face staggering social, economic, political, and environmental challenges, and approaching these challenges through our existing paradigms does not seem to be working. The world requires of us and our students a visionary imagination, a capacity to see our existing systems as human-created, and as structures that are open to reinvention.

My personal driving question lately has been this: “How can PBL serve as an invitation to students to imagine and manifest a world of collective liberation?” From a practical standpoint, this means designing projects that invite and challenge students to both understand and think beyond existing systems. This work—this capacity for creative vision-- is not divorced from, but rather requires, the integration and application of deep content knowledge and meaningful success skills. Here are some driving questions that might inspire visionary imagination:

  • What might a “just” justice system look like?
  • How can we, as mathematicians, develop a viable proposal for a Universal Basic Income, and what would the implications of this system be?
  • How can we lead our community in transitioning to new, sustainable, ways of thinking about, generating, and using energy?
  • What can reading and writing utopian/dystopian fiction teach us about shaping the future?
  • What kind of society would our class build if we had to start from scratch?

New research shows that telling students that the world is functional and fair can actually be harmful, especially to students who are most impacted by structural oppression and inequality. But telling students that they are trapped in an unfair system also doesn’t seem like an appropriate place to land. How can we make school a space where our students can, as the writer Joanna Macy puts it, “honor and own this pain for the world” and use that pain as fuel to move towards compassionate, transformative action and creation? Students-- all humans-- already have an immense capacity to think in big, imaginative, generative ways, but if this capacity is not nurtured, it can become difficult to access.

As teachers, it is hard to sustain and imagine broader, life-affirming visions when living within structures that often feel like The Only Reality There Is. But as PBL teachers, we know how to do this-- we have already opened ourselves up to alternative ways of operating in an educational system that seemed entrenched. We have already begun to shift the power structures in our own classrooms, to ask better questions, to deepen our relationships with our learners and ourselves, to reconnect with creative possibility, and to facilitate collaborative ideation and inquiry. Let’s take it further.

I know this work is already happening in classrooms around the world. In the comments section below, please share your projects and your dreams. How are you working with students to imagine and create new possibilities and new futures?


NOTE: This post was inspired by reading and learning from countless visionary thinkers, writers, teachers, and activists. Special gratitude to adrienne maree brown, whose book Emergent Strategy is a handbook for creating new worlds, to Joanna Macy, who has envisioned “the Great Turning,” and to all of the amazing dreamers in the Afrofuturism movement.


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