by Helen Soule
Executive Director Partnership for 21st Century Skills
Creating a gold-standard for Project Based Learning and then reaching that standard may seem to be a bit like scaling a mountain - at first glance-difficult, very risky, and somewhat mysterious. However, even the tallest mountains can be climbed if you have the right knowledge, skills, tools, and support—and perhaps a little courage. The same can be said for Project Based Learning. We at the Partnership for 21st Century Skills think a lot about skills - so let’s explore the skills that are needed.
Take a deep look at the essential elements of a gold standard PBL, as outlined by BIE Executive Director John Mergendoller. It is easy to see that this standard of excellence cannot be achieved without the 4Cs (communication, critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, and creativity and innovation). These skills are the springboards upon which the highest quality PBL is built; they are embedded in these essential elements; and they must be developed and nurtured in teachers and students alike to successfully reach this high standard.
At the heart of Project Based Learning is the educator -- who brings individual expertise, knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Transforming teaching practice through PBL can be incredibly rewarding, risky, and frustrating. The educators that I have seen in P21’s 21st Century Learning Exemplar Schools implementing high quality Project Based Learning most often speak of it as a journey, even a quest for excellence. They talk about their own professional growth, their evolving practices, their successes and failures, their need for patience, persistence and support - and they talk explicitly and implicitly about how they use the 4Cs every day.
Lets take a closer look at the 4Cs and their relationship to Gold Standard PBL.
The very nature of communication changes with PBL. The language used is different, the processes and practices are different, and the relationship between teacher and student is different. New communication strategies and tactics must be employed in the PBL classroom, as the teacher becomes a guide, a facilitator, an enabler, a motivator, and a developer of learning experiences, rather than a lecturer, director, and source of all knowledge. The PBL teacher needs a toolbox full of questioning techniques to develop inquiry and curiosity, and new ways to clearly articulate the purpose and value of PBL to stakeholders, parents, and community members alike, for which this is new.
Critical thinking/problem solving continues to be a core component of PBL both as an end and a means. Teachers must internalize and model critical thinking, building it into the DNA of classroom practice. As Mergendoller points out, this takes intentionality, self-direction, and time. Through this process of development and incorporation into practice, a funny thing happens—critical thinking begins to affect everything, including how instruction is designed, and how one thinks through content for new projects. The teachers I meet in exemplar schools across the country tell me that this is hard - and one of the game-changers for their classroom and their students.
The importance of student collaboration is widely acknowledged and appreciated in the worldwide PBL community. Building students’ collaboration skills is a key component, and advantage, of Project Based Learning. Through collaborative experiences, students learn how to collectively plan, work towards a common goal, and recognize and navigate individual differences in skills, abilities, and attitudes. However, teacher collaboration also plays an essential role in the journey toward the highest quality PBL, providing needed peer support and encouragement for this transformation, which often accelerates capacity building. Teacher collaboration can take many forms, from formal professional learning networks, to mentorships and coaching, to informal groups of like-minded peers with common interests. Collaboration occurs inside or outside the school, online, face-to-face, across the world, or across the hall. BIE’s PBL World Community on Google+ is a great example of one such valuable learning network. Collaboration on projects across disciplines strengthens the content, relevance and depth of the project, helping students connect the dots among their separate courses.
The incorporation of creativity and innovation skills in the gold standard PBL should not be overlooked. At the heart of Project Based Learning lies the opportunity for students and teachers to innovate, and to create new products, new learning, and even new ways of visualizing the world. The examples are everywhere. I was fortunate to see many during my school visits as part of the Exemplar program. For example, at Spirit Lake High School in Spirit Lake, Iowa students designed and built a new sculpture for a community park; at Savannah High School in Anaheim, California, students created water “vehicles” out of recyclable materials; and at Genesee Expeditionary School in Rochester, New York, students built a model of the Genesee River. These projects show creativity and innovation in action in schools.
As the gold standard for PBL develops and evolves, we must be sure our educators have the essential knowledge, tools, support, and skills needed to achieve this goal. Having seen many high-quality PBL classrooms and schools, I know there are leaders and organizations, such as BIE and P21, that have pioneered this work and like mountain climbers reaching the summit, have already seen the power of the results. Let us work together with these pioneers to take the next steps to excellence by establishing a gold standard for Project Based Learning.