Keynote | FETC Learning

An Inspiration for Project-based Learning Advocates

Back in 1999, on a dare from her then-sixth-grade class, Reno, NV, middle school teacher and 2012 FETC keynote speaker Tierney Cahill accepted the challenge of a lifetime and embarked on the ultimate project-based learning assignment: With no prior political experience, and a shoestring budget of just $7,000--but the help of her students--Cahill ran for her district's seat in the US House of Representatives, spurred on by one student's cynicism that only millionaires and the well-connected can run for public office.

Throughout the run, Cahill kept the class focused on the civics side of campaign management, not the hot-button politics, and together they ran a bare-bones campaign against a two-term Republican incumbent with a six-figure war chest--despite little support from the Democratic Party, even though she was its standard bearer. As part of their first-hand civics lesson, students designed T-shirts, knocked on doors, and sat in on live TV interviews. When the votes were tallied, Cahill took an unexpected 30 percent of the vote in her opponent's stronghold and the students had learned a valuable lesson: Anyone can run for office and campaign with the best of them.

Today, Cahill is still in the classroom teaching history and government. She has already optioned her unlikely story to Hollywood and written a memoir, Ms. Cahill for Congress (Ballantine). And although she describes her time stumping for Congress as "unbelievably exhausting," Cahill is still a fierce advocate of designing new and ambitious projects for her students--and herself--that combine learning and hands-on experience. "We talk about kids with ADD that need stimulation--I'm that kind of teacher," she said. "I cannot do the exact same thing every year. I have to have change, and do things that are different for me to be excited about it."

Recently, Cahill collected materials from the Buck Institute for Education, a project-based learning resource, and had her students draft a hypothetical democratic constitution for a country rebounding from the tumult of the Arab Spring. Cahill was instantly drawn to the project and says that its topical nature helped cultivate buy-in from students.

This year, after a lesson on world religion, her history class is preparing a cultural sensitivity report that asks students to imagine themselves on permanent work transfer to Rome, Mumbai, and other exotic locales in order to come up with their own analysis of the cultural considerations.

As the projects her students take on shift with the times, so do the classroom tools. Cahill's government class maintains an active Facebook page and regularly incorporates video from sites like YouTube into the curriculum. With the nearly limitless access to information that her students have, Cahill believes education should be able to accommodate a spate of 21st century skills.

"Education is changing. It’s changing fast, and we better adapt and make it meaningful and get kids on board," she said. "In the age of Google, I think memorizing random facts is ridiculous when you can look it up on your phone. It's more important to have good critical thinking skills and to be able to problem solve and be a high-level thinker. You don't do that by saying, 'Here, read this and bubble in this answer.'"            

But while Cahill may be occupied with adapting project-based learning to the future, her awed students often still have one eye on the past. "I have had kids say, 'Well, what do we have to do to get you run for office again? Do we just have to say, I dare you? Our class wants to do that too,'" she said. "Maybe they just want me to be the eternal candidate."

About the Author

Stephen Noonoo is an education technology journalist based in Los Angeles. He is on Twitter @stephenoonoo.