(Originally published at Getting Smart.com)
Project Based Learning can be a liberatory pedagogy tied directly to dismantling racism.
Black and Brown students are often walking into schools where their stories have already been written for them. We have to change this by giving students authorship in sharing and telling their own stories. Success for all students—particularly those furthest from opportunity—means putting more intentionality around our practices. A high-quality project allows just this. This is a call to action to be intentional in the ways we disrupt education inequities by using High Quality PBL (HQPBL) practices.
Last year, along with 104 other organizations, PBLWorks signed on to promote and support the HQPBL framework.
Since this model doesn’t explicitly address the ways HQPBL can advance racial equity, I’d like to offer an overlay to help educators more concretely see the connection between the two.
Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment
Intellectual challenge and accomplishment means deeply believing in your core that ALL students can learn. With this, comes building a culture of excellence in your classroom. It means keeping to the highest possible standards and building students up to meet them. Believing in excellence, as demonstrated by setting high expectations, is the fuel that runs a successful PBL culture. Ron Berger writes about the importance of excellence eloquently in his book An Ethic of Excellence: “I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same.” The challenge lives in teachers ensuring the proper scaffolding, knowing the current reality of their students, and in deeply believing that students can achieve excellence without a lowering of expectations.
Students are our greatest strength in the fight for educational justice. How are we allowing their leadership to show up in classrooms? Let’s embrace that powerful role and go beyond simply teaching the standards by providing our students with opportunities to become better people and act as change agents to make the world a better place.
What does it mean to build an authentic culture in a classroom? It means deeply understanding how social-emotional learning intersects with academic challenges. It means building trusting relationships together. It means allowing students to bring their whole selves to the classroom. This means honoring the intersectionalities of identity: race, class, gender and sexuality. We must allow students to solve complex problems that are global and locally grounded. This will add what Priya Parker calls “heat-burning relevance” and it makes connections beyond the classroom.
Authentic projects change the educational game for students. Too often, I hear stories about students who are pushed out of school citing that their education held no meaning to their lives. If done well, PBL is work that matters, and student engagement levels skyrocket because they are becoming active change agents to their communities and our planet.
Students situated in poverty can live in communities and face living conditions that are not beautiful places. Imagine the power then for these same students to be able to walk into beautiful school spaces, reinvented by high-quality student work everywhere. A school building with every space made inclusive, welcoming. What a moment of pride. Public products prominently displayed throughout a school are transformative and invigorating.
Alongside creating beautiful spaces, students must get used to the habit of sharing their work with people beyond the school. This process holds students accountable to others beyond themselves and creates ownership and accountability to revise and refine, to make their work better because people are watching and they care. This is liberatory pedagogy; the act of community feedback that holds students to a higher bar than even they thought possible.
Employers name collaboration as a top skill their employees need. If done well, PBL is an inherently collaborative experience. PBL provides authentic and productive forms of collaboration. Educators must reconceptualize collaboration in classrooms to also include: outside experts, community members, and organizations that can tie into projects. We need to ask ourselves these questions: How are we bringing in local experts that look like our students? How are we considering community voices?
Project Management is another important skill needed to navigate life in careers and the workplace. The ability to manage time, people, tasks and resources is paramount to being successful in many jobs and learning environments. PBL provides opportunities for students to grapple with challenges in their project management that help them navigate what they can expect in college, career and beyond.
Adults and teachers who show up as their best selves daily do so by consistently reflecting. This practice might involve: meditating, rewriting project plans, and eliciting feedback from administrators, mentors and peers. In order for students to do the same, they engage in a constant state of reflection around their project, they are getting peer and local expert feedback to revise their work. The reflection process allows for moments to witness growth and progress both singularly and collectively. Providing meaningful feedback to each other allows students to contribute to a strong, supportive classroom culture.
In order to build a culture of reflection in the classroom, teachers need to let go of the circular narrative that often goes like this: teach, assign, students do the work we ask, then we start over. One of the many benefits of creating reflective classroom spaces is that they counter the trauma that schools can cause students in their policies and practices. Instead of fighting the testing and homework cogs, students are spending valuable time and energy reflecting on what they can do to consistently improve the quality of their work or how they show up for their groups to collaborate more meaningfully. On a systemic level, the reflective PBL classroom culture can be mirrored in a school-wide culture that brings social-emotional learning to the forefront through mindfulness practices.