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story.lead_photo.caption Johnny Key, secretary of elementary and secondary education for the state of Arkansas, speaks Tuesday at Arkansas High School. He was the keynote speaker for the first day of the Arkansas Project Based Learning Institute, which will be held through Thursday. Photo by Jennifer Middleton / Texarkana Gazette.

TEXARKANA, Ark. — Arkansas' top education official helped kick off the Arkansas Project Based Learning Institute on Tuesday at Arkansas High School.

Johnny Key, the state's secretary of elementary and secondary education, spoke on the first day of the three-day conference, which has attendees from across the state, Kansas, Illinois, Texas, New York, Massachusetts and Dubai.

He said project-based learning is a completely different model from what people normally think of in a classroom, with a teacher addressing rows of students seated at their desks, awaiting the day's lesson.

"Project-based learning flips that on its head and transforms it to really make a student-focused education system possible," he said.

PBL has been in place for the past several years in the Texarkana, Arkansas, School District and is a student-centered teaching process designed for students to gain deeper knowledge by using real-world problems and challenges.

"We are seeking to transform Arkansas to lead the nation in student-focused education," Key said. "To do that, we offer leadership, support and service to schools districts and communities so every student graduates prepared for college, career and community engagement."

The state is also working with students as young as eighth grade to develop success plans so they will begin thinking about their educational and career futures.

"We are providing essential skills that every student needs to be successful, no matter which path they choose, whether they choose a technical path, whether they choose an academic path, it doesn't matter because at any point in time, kids now have options that they can decide to change their path," Key said. "They don't have to know exactly what they want to do, but we want them to start getting interested in something. We want to start getting them focused on what they like. If we can get our students to start thinking about what they are interested in, we can start getting them directed toward, not necessarily a career path in eighth grade, but a life path."

He added that students' career options will change drastically in the next five years, and the state is preparing them for those changes.

"We don't know what the career opportunities are going to be then for our students, but we are giving them accelerated opportunities and helping them take care of the deficits and really help start their college and career planning."

The conference lasts through Thursday, when Arkansas Lt. Governor Tim Griffin will speak at 8 a.m. in the Student Center.

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