A New Focus on Purpose-Based Learning

During his sophomore year at Gilman School (MD), Matthew Mu and two of his fellow students became interested in the idea of building a hydroponic greenhouse on campus. No faculty asked them to do it, nor was it part of a class project. “I took it as a challenge,” Mu says. “I wanted to show people what’s possible.” Two years later, after the first greenhouse was destroyed by high winds, the three students have created an urban hydroponics program that collaborates with other schools in the Baltimore area. Now they are training younger students to take over the project.

This story, in many ways, exemplifies the kind of learning independent schools have always sought to achieve. But these examples of students doing real things in the real world are becoming even more common, as the landscape for learning rapidly transforms. Like many organizational shifts, this transformation is messy, uneven, and, at times, hard to define. But there is an underlying pattern that connects much of what is happening in schools today. This pattern is a shift to purpose-based learning—and by understanding this pattern and making it more visible to teachers, parents, and students, we can accelerate school innovation.

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