THE BLOG
01/29/2015 05:43 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

Learning Gets Funky!

Learning today can look and feel quite differently than what most of us experienced in school. The recent "Uptown Funk" video by A Maceo Smith New Tech High School students generated more than 6.5 million views on YouTube in three days. On the surface it looks like a teacher and some students simply having fun. Look more closely, learning is happening right in front of your eyes.

We think we know what good learning looks like -- students studying cancer cells under a microscope, listening to a lecture from a teacher on World War I and earning B's and A's on tests and papers. These kinds of activities are components of learning at New Tech Network elementary, middle and high schools. But there is so much more to teaching students how to learn, engaging them in relevant inquiry-led work, and helping them create products for the world to see. This is what we mean by "college and career ready students."

Titled "So You Think You Can Dance?," this 'one take' video project was the brainchild of Scot Pankey, teacher and director of Theater Arts at Dallas-based A. Maceo Smith New Tech High School.

The video is a terrific example of a culminating product from a Project-Based Learning (PBL) school. In PBL, learning is contextual, creative and shared. Students collaborate on meaningful projects that require critical thinking, creativity and communication in order for them to answer challenging questions or solve complex problems. By making learning relevant to them in this way, students see a purpose for mastering state-required skills and content concepts.

Students aren't just assessed on their understanding of academic content, but on their ability to successfully apply that content when solving authentic problems. Through this process, PBL gives students the opportunity to develop skills required for success in today's world.

I asked Scot about the timing for the project which was filmed when the students returned from their winter break. "We wanted to bring excitement and energy to the whole school," said Scot. "We always try to incorporate some sort of "group work" after winter break -- when students find it hard to face a return to school."

Scot got the idea for the project after seeing Ellen DeGeneres' Oscar 'one take' video that she created for the 2014 Academy Awards. "I wanted to take the students out of their comfort zone," said Scot. "Ninety percent of the students had never danced before."

Students collaborated in groups; each group selected their own choreography to go along with the music. "They were also able to share with the group why they might be uncomfortable with different dance moves as well as what dance moves they wanted to perform," said Scot.

Projects are designed by teachers to align with school-wide learning outcomes and state standards. In this case, Scot wanted to focus on collaboration, communication, creativity and presentation skills utilizing the pervasive use of technology throughout the school.

The interest generated by the video more than surpassed Scot's expectations. "I anticipated about 1,000 views on YouTube, not the more than 6.5 million we received so far," he said.

The students are equally excited by the phenomenon. "They're 'on fire," said Scot. "This project has given them a real sense of pride."

There is no one true way to help students prepare for life after high school graduation. "This project has boosted students' self-confidence," said Scot. "It has given them a chance to dream, and the understanding that this world is bigger than their home or their neighborhood. They're thinking -- 'maybe there's hope out there that I can do more than I ever thought I could possibly do?'"

Deep down we each yearn for ways to become visible, to feel worthy and to feel capable of doing more than we know how to do today. Hats off to Scot and his students. This type of "deep" learning is taking place in hundreds of public schools around the country that will never get to experience the rush that A. Maceo Smith students got this week. We might ask ourselves: in what ways can we elevate student voice? How can we see examples of student work like this video? Trust me, there is almost nothing more exciting and invigorating than to see the joy of learning in action.