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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Hinton

Back to School Time! Try Project-Based Learning to Teach 21st-Century Skills

“Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.”

-John W. Gardner

An effective teacher must master the professional skills necessary to deliver a high-quality 21st-century education to their students. In this blog post, I will discuss Project Based Learning (PBL) for an effective 21st-century education.

One of the best ways to provide students with opportunities to learn and practice 21st-century skills is by implementing project-based learning or PBL. According to PBL Works, one of the leading authorities on PBL, “PBL is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.” PBL is not to be confused with traditional school projects. Traditional projects are usually assigned at the end of a unit of study as a form of enrichment. PBL, on the other hand, is the primary mode of student learning. In other words, PBL is the “main course” and not just the “dessert.” The beauty of PBL is that teachers across grade levels and subject disciplines can adapt PBL to suit the individual needs of their students. In other words, PBL can look very different from one classroom to another, and it is the flexibility to adapt PBL to students’ individual needs that PBL derives its power. However, despite PBL’s tractability, according to PBL Works, there are seven generally accepted components of all PBL. Projects must address a challenging problem or question, students must be engaged in iterative sustained inquiry, the project must be authentic and have real-world applicability, students must have voice and choice in the PBL process, there must be opportunities for reflection and critique, and finally, the PBL must conclude with a public presentation of students’ final products, usually before an audience of community stakeholders and experts.

The research supporting the effectiveness of PBL is emerging but promising. An analysis of four literature reviews spanning 30 years in various academic subjects concludes that PBL can promote student learning and has the potential to be more effective than traditional approaches in social studies, science, mathematics, and literacy, especially for disadvantaged students (Kingston, 2018). PBL is beneficial for college preparatory students too. A recent randomized study spanning over two years involving 3,635 students in five urban school districts revealed that students who took Advanced Placement courses that utilized PBL and Knowledge in Action (KIA) approaches scored eight percentage points higher on the Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics and Environmental Science exams, than students who took traditional Advanced Placement courses (Saavedra et al., 2021). Additionally, research has shown that PBL strengthens students’ 21st-century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration (Evans, 2020), complex communication (Thompson, 2020), and self-directed learning (Brandt, 2020).

As a high school U.S. history teacher, I love to engage my classes with the National History Day (NHD) curriculum. NHD is an excellent way to get history students in grades 7-12 involved in the PBL. Plus, it is a perfect entry point to doing PBL due to the abundance of resources provided for free by NHD. Every year NHD publishes an annual theme that students must address in the creation of their projects. NHD requires students to ask their own questions and search for their own answers by conducting primary and secondary research. Then students construct a final product to communicate their research conclusions. Students can select to create an exhibit board, website, documentary video, research paper, or performance. Students can participate in NHD as individuals or as members of a collaborative team. Think of NHD as a science fair for history students.

Many schools, districts, and states have NHD fairs in which students have the opportunity to present their final projects to their classmates, families, and members of the community. NHD winners are selected based upon the quality of their final projects to include an annotated bibliography, process paper, and an interview with judges. Winners of their state-level competitions can compete in the national competition held in the summer at the University of Maryland. When students create a project for competition, I have found that it raises the stakes that go beyond typical school busywork like worksheets and review questions. Students rise to the occasion and do incredible work because the work is relevant, personal, and sustained. NHD has been proven to elevate student’s academic achievement across all academic subjects, including reading, writing, and mathematics. Additionally, NHD prepares students for college, career, and citizenship by teaching students the 21st-century skills they will need to succeed (Sloan & Rockman, 2011).

Despite the benefits of PBL, there are significant challenges to the approach. The first is the training that teachers need to implement PBL effectively. Because it is a paradigm shift from traditional teaching methods such as direct instruction, teachers will need to become familiar with PBL approaches. Proficiency in teaching PBL can take months and even years to master. Teachers must methodically plan projects to include creating the essential question, developing a project plan and schedule, preparing assessments and evaluations (formative and summative), and reflections. In PBL, teachers serve as a “guide on the side,” helping students to answer their own questions, conduct research, and plan and create their projects. Further, teachers assist students to manage their time, set goals, and work productively in cooperative learning groups. At times, teachers may also have to motivate and encourage students through the challenging PBL process helping students develop grit and perseverance.

Another drawback of PBL is that many teachers view it as too time-consuming and experience frustration trying to fit PBL into an already dense school day. PBL requires teachers to rethink their curriculum and understand that student-centered learning approaches inherently take longer to implement. Still, the tradeoff in student learning and achievement makes PBL a good investment of time. Surprisingly, many students will push back on PBL at first because PBL will transfer the hard work of learning from the teacher to the students. Students may also feel anxiety when involved in learning tasks that do not have a clear “right” answer. For example, one of my standard retorts to student questions is, “what does your analysis of the evidence suggest?” Even though teaching PBL is time-consuming and involved, I know that my students have grown as researchers, critical thinkers, and communicators. In addition to the academic growth I have seen my students make due to PBL, the looks of pride and accomplishment on their faces when they submit their final projects are priceless. When I engage my students with PBL, I create life-long independent learners who have the skills and dispositions to succeed as students, employees, and citizens.

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