A burst of new ideas has, in the past, been a sign things aren’t going as they should. When production is off, managers try new methods, hoping to solve the problem.

It’s like that in education. When school administrators see falling productivity — grades and graduation rates — the tendency is to try something new. California schools have been caught in such a loop since the state’s public education system began slipping from one of the best in the country, to being near the bottom in key areas of student performance.

Solving the performance issue is not a simple task. For one thing, demographics in public schools have changed dramatically over the years, and there are nothing quite like language and cultural barriers to stymie student achievement.

So, those who draw up plans for California education have invented all manner of innovations over the years, with spotty success. That compels traditionalists to repeat a familiar refrain — just go back to teaching the basics, the ABCs of schooling.

That approach has a certain appeal, especially to those of us who matriculated in ABC-dominated educational environments. But the old tried-and-true ways don’t acknowledge some of the basic realities of life in the early 21st century. And by that we basically are referring to technology, and the speed with which it is accelerating.

Sometimes, the hardest thing is for one generation to look beyond itself, see a future that is wildly different — and accept the fact that the new paradigm may, indeed, be better than the old.

That may be the case with a new educational philosophy we reported on last week. Like most new things, it has been given a catchy name, in this case, “project-based learning.” And the new process has two guiding principles — technology and school culture at the sub-college level.

The core idea is that learning is made contextual, creative and shared. Students band together to work as groups, rather than as individuals, and the emphasis is on critical thinking and problem-solving. To reach such goals, students must learn to communicate and cooperate. They must become fully engaged, because every member of the team is supposed to participate in a final decision, whatever it may involve.

Sound familiar? It should, because if you work in an office or on an assembly line, the core principles of project-based learning are what also drive decision-making in just about any multi-worker environment.

A person can have a good idea, but it may not necessarily blossom into a great idea unless more minds than one are involved in the process.

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The good fortune for today’s students is they not only have the benefit of a team approach to problem-solving, they also have technology at their fingertips that was little more than a science-fiction pipe dream as recently as one generation ago.

Locally, in districts where the project-based learning model is used, computers are available on a one-to-one basis. So, each student essentially has a co-thinker with almost unlimited access to the world’s library of information, plus lightning-fast mental reflexes unfettered by emotions and wildly fluctuating hormones.

We are mostly a product of the older, ABC approach, and frankly, we’re envious of this new generation of learners. What wouldn’t we have given for a know-it-all computer.

Project-based learning has all that, and something else — making students entirely responsible for their study time and attendance. Parents may worry about that last part, but it is a necessary step in the process of maturing.

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