The Clearing House, 83: 39–43, 2010Copyright C Taylor & Francis Group, LLCISSN: 0009-8655 printDOI: 10.1080/00098650903505415 Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century: Skills for the Future STEPHANIE BELLAbstract: Project-Based Learning (PBL) is an innovative inquiry. Students develop a question and are guidedapproach to learning that teaches a multitude of strate- through research under the teacher’s supervision. Dis-gies critical for success in the twenty-ﬁrst century. Stu- coveries are illustrated by creating a project to share withdents drive their own learning through inquiry, as well a select audience. Organizers support systematization ofas work collaboratively to research and create projects the processes that will be implemented throughout thethat reﬂect their knowledge. From gleaning new, viable research and project phases of PBL. Student choice istechnology skills, to becoming proﬁcient communica- a key element of this approach. Teachers oversee eachtors and advanced problem solvers, students beneﬁt step of the process and approve each choice before thefrom this approach to instruction. student embarks in a direction. Children with similar inquiries may elect to work cooperatively, thereby nur-Keywords: project-based learning, 21st Century skills, turing twenty-ﬁrst-century collaboration and commu-inquiry, authentic learning, motivation, creativity nication skills and honoring students’ individual learn- ing styles or preferences. PBL is not a supplementary activity to support learning. It is the basis of the curricu- Mrs. Regent was erasing the board, getting prepared for lum. Most projects include reading, writing, and math-the next lesson, when the new assistant principal walked in. ematics by nature. Many inquiries are science-based orIntroductions were made as the assistant principal perused originate from current social problems. The outcome ofthe room. He stood for a minute or two, just looking at the PBL is greater understanding of a topic, deeper learning,classroom. Finally, he spoke. “They are all so. . . engaged,” he higher-level reading, and increased motivation to learn.said with astonishment. The teacher paused for a moment, PBL is a key strategy for creating independent thinkersnot sure what to say. She looked around, and it was evident and learners. Children solve real-world problems by de-that each child was immersed and focused on his or her work. signing their own inquiries, planning their learning, or-The only thing that the teacher could respond to the assistant ganizing their research, and implementing a multitudeprincipal was, “Aren’t they supposed to be?” of learning strategies. Students ﬂourish under this child- “Can I please do a project? I have an idea for an driven, motivating approach to learning and gain valu-inquiry! Please? Please?” Have you ever heard a child able skills that will build a strong foundation for theirbeg to do work? In a project-based learning classroom, future in our global economy.it is routine! Research on PBLAn Introduction to the Project-Based Learning Standardized testing is one measure of achievement.Approach Each state has its own standard measure of academic Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a student-driven, competency. Each standardized test only measures theteacher-facilitated approach to learning. Learners pur- speciﬁc content knowledge it is designed to test. In mea-sue knowledge by asking questions that have piqued suring basic academic subject proﬁciency, standardizedtheir natural curiosity. The genesis of a project is an testing shows that students engaged in PBL outscore Stephanie Bell is an elementary school teacher in Katonah, NY, and a doctoral student of Instructional Leadership at Western Connecticut State University, Danbury, CT. 39
40 The Clearing House 83(2) 2010their traditionally educated peers (Geier et al. 2008). brainstorm what their procedure will be for researchHowever, standardized testing does not measure criti- and identify the materials that they will need to do theircal twenty-ﬁrst-century skills that are integral for student research. Next, students select a way to display what theysuccess. have learned in the form of a project. A target audience In one British study, over the course of three years, with whom to share their project is selected, rangingstudents were taught using traditional math programs from their peers, to the principal, to their parents. Theat one school and PBL at another school. Three times as audience must be authentic and appropriate. For exam-many PBL students achieved the highest possible grade ple, if students are working on a science inquiry on theon the national exam than the students at a traditional topic of energy, they may choose to research how toschool. Students at the PBL school were equally able harness hydropower to make a machine. A group mayto answer procedural questions that used formulas, but elect to make a working catapult. The culmination ofthey were superior in answering applied and conceptual the project might be a contest to see how far they canproblems (Boaler 1999). This researcher concluded that catapult a ball or an egg, with the class as the audience.students acquired a different kind of knowledge from Accountability to an audience coupled with a due dateusing a PBL approach. keeps students on track. In another study, elementary students in three Learning responsibility, independence, and disciplineDubuque, Iowa schools that used PBL raised their IOWA are three outcomes of PBL. The organizational blueprintTest of Basic Skills scores from “well below average” to that students have designed for themselves guides themthe district average in two schools and to “well above the and allows them to stay focused and on-task. As childrendistrict average” in another school. Moreover, in three become more proﬁcient in the PBL approach, they learnyears, reading gains “ranged from 15% in one school to self-monitor their progress through daily agenda set-to over 90% in the other two schools while the district ting. At the end of each work session, students report onaverage remained the same” (Thomas 2000). whether they have met their goals for the day. Students At an inner city, racially diverse school in Boston must use their work time effectively and stay focusedthat implemented a PBL program called Expeditionary and on-task to succeed. Goal setting helps students learnLearning, eighth graders exhibited the second highest to manage their own time. It is important for the teacherscores in the district on the Stanford 9 Open Ended to confer with students regularly to ensure that studentsReading Assessment (Thomas 2000). Similar ﬁndings in are on track and developing their ideas and skills fully.Maine concluded that a middle school using a PBL ap- These skills are critical for future success in both schoolproach showed signiﬁcant increases in all achievement and life.areas on the Maine Educational Assessment Battery after Students learn accountability with PBL through theonly one year using the approach. The gains made by daily goal setting, as well as through expectations of theirthis school were three to ten times higher than the state peers. When students work collaboratively, there is anaverage (Thomas 2000). expectation that each child will contribute to the project Authentic projects require different measures of suc- equally. The group dynamic creates an interdependentcess, however. In PBL, students solve real-world prob- team in which students must each do their part, andlems. For example, in one study, students were asked as a result, a natural consequence exists for those stu-to apply the concepts of geometry to architecture and dents who do not demonstrate accountability—otherssubmit designs for a new playhouse for a community may no longer want to be paired with students whocenter. Upon evaluating these designs, 84 percent of do not do their fair share. Therefore, peer pressure con-the submissions were judged to be accurate enough to tributes to the accomplishment of ongoing group tasksbuild. This is an impressive measure of achievement. throughout the learning process and the culminationMoreover, students were able to revise their designs after of a successful ﬁnal product. Students are conscientiousconsulting resources, which demonstrates a high level because they must complete their project in the allottedof motivation that is uncommon in traditional learn- time. They can be incredibly resourceful when time ising settings. Furthermore, these students demonstrated of the essence. Accountability to peers often has greatera solid grasp of the concepts and were able to perform consequences and provides more motivation for stu-well on traditional tests (Thomas 2000). dents than if they were only responsible to the teacher. Children do not want to let their friends down.Learning to be Self-Reliant through Planningand Organization Social Learning Enhances Collaboration Skills There are several phases within PBL. Each phase must PBL promotes social learning as children practicebe completed in a timely manner. Thorough and care- and become proﬁcient with the twenty-ﬁrst-centuryful planning is essential to the ﬂow of the project and skills of communication, negotiation, and collabora-the success of the student. In the beginning, children tion. As children work on these projects, they mustuse organizers to isolate an inquiry question. They then brainstorm ideas and act as good listeners to their group
Project-Based Learning 41members. Teaching students active listening skills as learners. They become able to make better choices,enhances collaborative ability as well as creativity. Stu- whether relating to process, environment, or outcome,dents learn the fundamental skills of productive com- which enables them to become more independent andmunication, respect for others, and teamwork while responsible for their own learning.generating ideas together. Negotiating how to collec- Scaffolded instruction ensures success. Scaffolded in-tively solve a problem is also part of PBL. struction refers to the supports provided to students to At the end of the project, students do a self-evaluation. assist them in making cognitive growth just beyond theirThey evaluate not only their learning, but also the suc- reach. Students are involved in a discovery process whencess of their social interactions. They reﬂect on their they ﬁrst learn the structures of PBL, and they requirecommunication skills, if they felt they listened well to much support and monitoring. Scaffolded instructionother students’ ideas, and if they believed their own occurs in PBL when teachers use organizers that aid stu-opinions were heard. Consistent employment and prac- dents in bridging the gaps that exists in knowledge andtice of these skills will strengthen them over time and skill, and it makes the tasks manageable and achievable.lead to proﬁciency and mastery. These skills are critical As with most supports, scaffolds are temporary, and asto future success in the structures of our global economy. the learner gains ﬂuency in the skill, the supports are re- moved, leading to a self-conﬁdent and capable learner.Differentiation Provides Intrinsic Motivation The element of choice is crucial for students’ success. PBL in ActionDifferentiation allows students to develop their own PBL is an approach to instruction that teaches curricu-interests and pursue deeper learning. It also allows stu- lum concepts through a project. The project is guided bydents to soar and learn at their own levels. Students use an inquiry question that drives the research and allowsresources that are appropriate for their individual read- students to apply their acquired knowledge. For exam-ing levels and compatible with their technology knowl- ple, as part of a middle school interdisciplinary studyedge. One exciting feature provided by this intrinsic on Greece, students were instructed to choose a partic-motivation is that students will often reach higher and ular aspect of Greek life that interested them. Studentsattempt to read more challenging material to glean the chose one particular topic area, such as performing arts,information they seek. It is not unrealistic to suspect that visual arts, science, military, daily life, government, andstudents who are highly motivated will improve their so forth. After students selected a topic, they designedreading abilities as they strive to understand and learn an independent inquiry. Each student researched in-during PBL. Doppelt (2003), contends that students’ dependently and wrote an individual paper, and then“motivation to learn their discipline and their willing- some students worked in groups for the projects. Us-ness to work on their projects [for] longer hours indicate ing their knowledge of Gardner’s multiple intelligencesthat they behave. . . like high achievers” (p. 264). In an- (Gardner 2006), students created a three-minute pre-other study, attendance was found to be higher in PBL sentation as part of a living museum on Greek life. Pre-schools (Thomas 2000). These behaviors have positive sentations included dramatic performances of the Bat-effects on learning. tle of Marathon, debates on a Greek myth performed in The active learning process of PBL takes students’ var- character as Greek gods and goddesses in an Athenianious learning styles and preferences into account. Stu- courtroom, Greek dance, PowerPoint presentations, art,dents use a range of tools and resources to conduct their and more.research. They also choose individual ways to demon- One student chose daily life as her topic. She designedstrate their learning in their ﬁnal product. A child who an inquiry based on the oracle at Delphi. She and herprefers to be reﬂective may journal his learning in a di- teacher crafted an inquiry question together, gatheredary format to share with peers. Others can read the diary resources, and conferred regularly throughout her re-and then write responses. A student who thinks in more search and planning phases. The teacher took extensiveof an analytic, mathematical way may elect to create a notes of their conferences. These anecdotal records in-timeline of events or graph ﬁndings to present to his or formed the teacher’s instruction in guiding and keepingher audience. Students also may select their preferred the student on track. They also served as a referencelearning environment. Students may choose to work in tool for a comprehensive ﬁnal evaluation. Upon com-a quiet library or a bustling hallway, lying down in the pleting her research on the oracle at Delphi, the studentcarpet area or sequestered in the cubby area. Children wrote her paper. She then had to apply her knowledgelearn so much about themselves when they are empow- through a project. For her presentation at the museum,ered to make their own learning decisions. Children she dressed up as the Pythia. When people visited her,will reﬂect on these choices to ensure they are making she used the ﬁrst-person point of view to ﬁrst tell themthe best decisions possible. The opportunity to make about herself and then to tell her audience’s fortune inmistakes is part of the learning process. When we im- true oracle fashion, cryptic and in riddles. The depthplement PBL, we allow children to discover who they are of her knowledge was evident in her performance. At
42 The Clearing House 83(2) 2010the end of the project, the teacher graded the student’s further when they are highly motivated and interestedproposal, research notes, work habits, presentation, and in their inquiry topic. Motivation is sustained throughpaper. The student completed a self-evaluation, as well meaningful, real-world problems and projects.as a project reﬂection. Responses about the process were Real-world projects deepen learning for students. Af-overwhelmingly positive from both the students and ter returning from a ﬁeld trip to Washington, DC, whereteachers. middle school students visited various monuments, stu- dents selected a social justice issue that they felt deservedTechnology Enhances Creativity within a monument. One student selected child labor laws. TheParameters student researched the topic and then designed a three- In the twenty-ﬁrst century, students use computers in dimensional playground, with each play area represent-very advanced ways, but we must remember that they ing a different aspect of the issue, to commemorate theare still children and need guidance to use technology laws.safely and effectively. Technology as a means, not an The assistant principal in this case observed PBL inend, enables students to experiment with different tech- action and was amazed by the level of engagement. Stu-nologies for all aspects of PBL. An authentic use of tech- dents with strengths in academics were not the onlynology is highly engaging to students, because it taps ones who were successful. As the assistant principalinto their ﬂuency with computers. Students participate carefully watched a special education student, he notedin research using the Internet. During this phase of PBL, that the child was both determined and focused as hestudents learn how to navigate the Internet judiciously, contributed to his project alongside his group mem-as well as to discriminate between reliable and unreli- bers. This special needs student had an aptitude forable sources. It is important to set parameters to ensure construction on which the group capitalized in de-that students can explore safely. vising their project. Similarly, in the real world, peo- Students can use a multitude of applications, includ- ple use their individual strengths and talents in theiring Web 2.0, for their projects. Students may use a wiki jobs.to share knowledge or blog with other students to trou-bleshoot during the process segment of their projects. Inthe presentation phase, students may use various tech- Creating Success from the Beginningnologies to display their learning. Their audience may In PBL, children are constructing knowledge andreceive a podcast, a video, a photo story, a comic, and so building on their background knowledge. Children re-forth. These uses of technology provide instruction to tain more information when they learn by doing. Deweythe student by demonstrating innovative usage of vari- proposed that learning by doing has great beneﬁt inous applications. These applications also help students shaping students’ learning. High-quality experiences, asrealize appropriate ways to use technology. When stu- well as continuity of experiences, are paramount. PBLdents share their work or challenges, a brainstorming is an effective approach and is in line with Dewey’ssession often helps them build on each other’s ideas philosophies, to which many educators have ascribedfor future possibilities. This exercise promotes serious for enriched learning (Dewey 1938).creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. The PBL approach has been implemented with suc- cess as early as preschool using the Reggio Emilia ap-Real-World Connections proach. Reggio Emiglia is a project-based learning ap- Research supports PBL as a tool to engage students proach that began in northern Italy. It is a child-centeredin real-world tasks. Real-world tasks run the gamut in approach where the children are encouraged to pur-terms of necessary skills. It is important to remember sue their natural curiosity. The discover through expe-that even though a project may be based in one cur- riences that are carefully documented. Teachers guidericular area, it crosses over into all areas of traditional students and are resources to students throughout theiracademic studies. Evidence exists that through PBL, stu- studies. Students learn through collaboration and em-dents become better researchers, problem solvers, and ploy critical thinking skills as they engage in projects.higher-order thinkers (Gultekin 2005). Research sup- In particular, preschool students are encouraged toports that students using PBL perform better on both explore, investigate, and experience. This is the jumping-standardized assessments and project tests than stu- off point to developing students’ love of learning anddents in traditional direct instruction programs, and that nurturing their natural curiosity. The beginning of PBLthey learn not only real-world application of skills, but occurs when students learn in a social environment,also analytic thinking (Boaler 1999). In Boaler’s study work hand-in-hand with their teachers to discover ideasof students using a project-based approach in mathe- through careful scaffolding, document their journeymatics, students were better able to see the application of learning, and ﬁnally present their learning throughof their learning and less likely to view math as a set of projects. Beginning this approach early leads to greaterisolated skills. Additionally, children instinctively reach success, because it hones the essential skills necessary
Project-Based Learning 43for the twenty-ﬁrst century. The earlier we begin imple- As the assistant principal circulated around the roommenting this approach, the more competent children that day, he inquired of each student what they were do-will be with the processes of PBL and implementation ing, learning, researching, or making. Each student wasof skills. Research also supports that PBL is a highly on-task, thoroughly involved in a collaborative project,engaging and motivating approach that draws more in- and able to explain to the assistant principal what theyvolvement, interest, and investment in learning from were engaged in at the moment, as well as what they hadstudents. PBL raises students self-esteem by beginning done and their next steps. Students articulated how theythe cycle of success (Doppelt 2003). collaborated and problem-solved with their groups, and how they worked collectively to foster creativity and en-Measuring Effectiveness of Project-Based hance their projects. When the assistant principal left theLearning classroom that day, and for many months after that, the Our students develop twenty-ﬁrst-century skills teacher was only more assured that PBL was the bestthrough PBL that will aid them in becoming productive approach for her students. A didactic approach keptmembers of a global society. Many of these skills are not students passive, but the engagement and enjoymentmeasureable through standardized tests. We must shift of students during PBL only heightened the teacher’sour thinking about assessment when teaching twenty- conviction that she was imparting critical twenty-ﬁrst-ﬁrst-century skills. With PBL, assessment is authentic. century skills to her pupils. What sealed the deal wasWe measure a child’s performance via rubrics, but a the students’ quick adaptation to the process and ex-critical aspect of this model includes self-evaluation and citement about their learning. A big cheer rises fromreﬂection. Children learn from their processes. They re- every student in the class when they hear that a newﬂect on how well they worked in a collaborative group project will be beginning soon. That is what PBL is alland how well they contributed, negotiated, listened, and about!welcomed other group members’ ideas. Students alsoself-evaluate their own projects, efforts, motivations, in-terests, and productivity levels. Students become crit- REFERENCESical friends by giving constructive feedback to each Boaler, J. 1999. Mathematics for the moment, or the millennium?other, which helps them become aware of their own Education Week 17(29): 30–34.strengths and improve on their interactions with each Dewey, J. 1938. Experience and education. New York: Simon and Schus- ter.other. Doppelt, Y. 2003. Implementing and assessment of PBL in a ﬂexible In the future, children must enter a workforce in environment. International Journal of Technology and Design Educationwhich they will be judged on their performance. They 13:255–72. Gardner, H. 2006. Multiple intelligences. New York: Basic.will be evaluated not only on their outcomes, but also Geier, R., P. C. Blumenfeld, R. W. Marx, J. S. Krajcik, E. Soloway, andon their collaborative, negotiating, planning, and orga- J. Clay-Chambers. 2008. Standardized test outcomes for studentsnizational skills. By implementing PBL, we are prepar- engaged in inquiry-based curricula in the context of urban reform. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 45(8): 922–39.ing our students to meet the twenty-ﬁrst century with Gultekin, M. 2005. The effect of project based learning on learningpreparedness and a repertoire of skills they can use suc- outcomes in the 5th grade social studies course in primary educa-cessfully. Moreover, PBL projects are often impressive, tion. Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice 5(2): 548–56. Thomas, J. W. 2000. A review of research on PBL. http://www.grand undertakings created and presented with ultimate bobpearlman.org/BestPractices/PBL Research.pdf (accessed Febru-pride and care. ary 28, 2009).
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