2 HS students

How would you define education success?

Test scores, graduation rates, or overall academic performance are certainly valid measures, but do they ultimately define success relative to what students will need in a rapidly changing world? 

Think about this: A student who began elementary school this year will likely have a career that lasts through 2060 or beyond. But she is likely to also experience a heavy dose of passive, siloed and one-size-fits-all learning throughout her education career, especially in the short term due to the unprecedented challenges of remote learning. 

We know there is a better way! Project Based Learning, at its core, not only enables deeper learning of academic content, it allows students to develop and hone skills they will use for a lifetime - especially students who have historically struggled within a system that has a narrow definition of success. 

This is why I am so passionate about PBL! I’ve not only seen how it creates different avenues of success for students, but also why these broader definitions of success are so essential, both in and out of education.

My passion for PBL stems from an engineering career.

In my time as an engineer, I was directly or indirectly responsible for helping find talent in manufacturing locations across the US. That experience allowed me to see the significant incongruence between what the education community defines as success and what’s needed to sustain competitive relevance in tough, global markets - an experience that was identical to the problem Tony Wagner articulated in his seminal book, The Global Achievement Gap. But this experience only told me why change was needed. It was my later experience as a PBL teacher when I learned how we could solve this problem. 

I found the above problem to be so acute that I resolved to do something about it by leaving engineering to become a public school teacher at Tri-County Early College. It was at this PBL school, whose mission and Graduate Profile was to help students develop what Wagner called “Survival Skills,” that I saw how PBL provided students with the very skills my former colleagues and I struggled to find in the workforce.  

I’m not the first one to see the relationship between PBL and these Survival Skills. John Larmer makes a similar argument in this article, highlighting the alignment between the skills inherent to PBL and those that students need for success in college, career, and life. Larmer ends the article by asking a series of questions that should compel any teacher to begin their own PBL journey. That’s admittedly not an easy shift, especially in the midst of a global pandemic!

Here are 7 lessons learned that were beneficial in my own PBL journey.

These are not intended to be cookie-cutter solutions and will need to be adapted to your local context, especially for remote or hybrid classrooms:

1.    Collaboration: Start with low-stakes projects to help students build value for teamwork. Allow ways for students to share ideas and feedback so they gain confidence and see the value of diverse teams. Consider starting with pre-selected teams and roles, and then relax these constraints as students develop the capacity to make informed choices. Frequent milestone checks also provide a proactive way to address conflicts before they morph into something more difficult to manage. 

2.    Communication: “Why are we writing in math class?” is a question one eliminates by making reflective journaling an expectation of every class. Public speaking is also scaffolded by giving students opportunities to present their work early and often through gallery walks and progress checks. Start with lower-stakes presentations within teams, then graduate to higher stakes across a class and eventually to public exhibitions. 

3.    Agility & Adaptability: Every teacher knows that despite the best-laid plans, things will go wrong. Allowing students to be part of the solution when things go awry can teach them to adapt to new constraints. Consider unannounced “cross-pollination days,” where students work with new teams to justify their own progress and learn from their peers.

4.    Initiative & Entrepreneurship: Taking the initiative is difficult for students used to jumping through teacher-led hoops. Help them feel empowered to take risks by giving them agency over their final products. While everyone might be addressing the same learning goals, try to maximize voice and choice in the process they can take. Also mix in mini-challenges to help students celebrate learning from failure!

5.    Accessing & Analyzing Information: Today’s students have an almost unlimited access to information. Scaffold research skills so they can learn to filter the good from the bad. Tap into experts (something that is often easier in an online COVID environment!) so students can see the difference between high quality sources and factual-sounding junk. It’s also important that students are working on relevant topics instead of just what’s “safe.”

6.    Curiosity and Imagination: Are the topics students are working on rooted in things relevant to their lives? Doing so will help them build sustained inquiry through their natural curiosity about things they care about instead of checking academic boxes. Also keep a virtual or real “project wall” they regularly interact with to have a safe place to ask questions, share ideas, and celebrate progress. 

7.    Critical Thinking & Problem Solving: This is intentionally listed last because if you address the above items, you inherently provide students with multiple pathways to be problem solvers. This can be enhanced by asking students to co-design the driving question or final project specifications, providing frequent peer critique and feedback sessions, asking students to justify their PBL task plan and timelines to outside mentors, and finding ways to let them do authentic assessments to prove mastery of project learning goals.

These are but a few of the many ways you can help transition your classroom from a traditional model of abstract, siloed instruction to one of deep learning.

Join the growing number of educators who are using PBL – whether it’s in-person or remote learning – to redefine what success really means by helping students develop and refine the skills they will use for a lifetime!

Ben Owens, National Faculty
Ben Owens is a former engineer and STEM teacher. He received state and national recognition for his innovative approach to teaching and teacher leadership and now works as an education consultant to help schools create the cultural conditions to do the same. He co-authored the book, “Open Up, Education!”