Trends & Technology

The Case for Project Based Learning in Classrooms: Learning 21st Century Skills

April 1, 2016

Jobs in the information age require skills such as communicating clearly in different forms of media, the ability to work in teams, and helping to solve problems creatively. There’s no doubt that providing your children with the right kinds of education will help them excel in their life.
However are schools today providing the children with the right skills and tools to be able to succeed? And what can parents do to help support children in their learning and develop the skills to be successful well into the 21st century and beyond?
The heart of Project Based Learning (PBL) helps students to acquire these skills by putting the focus on deeper understanding. In fact, many IB schools use PBL by placing inquiry as the heart of the learning process. Project-based learning was created as a result of the need to develop deeper learning connections that are necessary for success in higher education, career, and participation in society. It is a style of teaching that focuses on the types of skills and tools that will deepen the connections between what students learn in the classroom and apply it in real world settings.
More specifically, PBL helps students to learn relevant skills by investigating and responding to a complex and engaging problem or challenge. Students are held to the highest standards by their teachers (and each other) because completing a project is so rigorous. It is not simply just being able to complete a project. Rather students need to apply what they already know and identify the skills they need to learn to be able to succeed in a real world context. These skills include critical thinking and problem solving, creativity, collaboration, authenticity and the appropriate use of tools and technology.
“Using projects is an all encompassing tactic that involves collaboration, creativity and a lot of hard work to be able to solve a problem”, says Kyle Wagner, Futures Academy Coordinator of the International School of Beijing. “Students need to be able to not only understand the content of what teachers are presenting, but to be able to combine content knowledge with creating a product that solves a problem by themselves. It’s really demanding, for both the teacher and students. Everyone works really hard, but they are enjoying what they are doing.”
The Futures Academy was created to help students develop problem solving skills and facilitate learning opportunities to empower students to take ownership of their learning. Their goal, like so many other Project Based Learning schools, is to help students cultivate transferable skills so that students can apply their creativity in innovative ways. These schools want to help students be able to do more than just memorize math equations or to be able to write well. What they want to do is to be able to help the students see why learning these skills (such as the ability to write well) will help them beyond the classroom.
For example, a project that students are working on with Wagner and other teachers at the Futures Academy deals with the food crisis. “There are predictions that, say, in ten to twenty years, at our rate of consumption, our food supply might be completely exhausted.” Wagner says. “Our project is a response to this, basically how to create systems that help to feed society given that society is in this crisis situation.”
Teachers in social studies, English and Math have collaborated together to be able to create this project. Students are working on sample of realistic food production models to help solve the food crisis. They are working on irrigation systems to help farmers grow more food efficiently. First, they created prototypes of what they thought would work, and testing them and refining their designs. They then will create a proposal about their systems to be able to present to the public on suggestions on where these systems can be used, and why they should be produced.
Another advantage to PBL is that students are intrinsically motivated because projects are usually based on students interests or a relevant issue in their lives. They work together with teachers to make decisions about a project, which can include what direction the project can take and the what the final product would be. They also are able to take ownership of their learning because they are given the opportunity to see how effective their work is, face obstacles themselves and find their own ways to overcome them. In this sense, teachers are not only content delivered, but collaborators as well.
Wagner believes that international schools are at a unique position to be able to implement Project Based Learning effectively. There are many unique ingredients that can help students reach their potential using this learning approach.
“An international school doesn’t necessarily have the bureaucracy that, a public school does. I find that I have a bit more freedom to plan projects and lessons that can best benefit my students without needing to ask permission all the time. I’m still able to achieve the high standards that other types of school do.” Wagner says. “As well, schools can afford to be able to implement these programs, so teachers are able to ask for money to get supplies. They are well connected also so there are a ton of resources for us.”
Perhaps Wagner’s favorite aspect of Project Based Learning in an international school setting is that there is so much support. “You have students that are highly motivated. You have families that are very supportive,” he says. “These are all the necessary ingredients to make for a very good project based learning environment.”

What Parents Can Do

There are many ways that parents can help. Since there isn’t technically any homework in the traditional sense for PBL, parents can help by getting more educated on what Project Based Learning is. First, parents can communicate with teacher about current projects students are working on to get a better sense of the content and skills their child is working on. If schools hold information sessions about PBL, this would be a great time for parents to connect with the school.
Parents can also help their children to practice 21st century skills at home. There are many ways that parents can foster creativity in children. Something as simple as giving time for students to draw, doodle or find alternative ways to solve a simple problem can help. If possible, parents can bring their child into work to observe the many ways that employees work together to solve problems. They can also show them how work environments can be similar to the skills they learn in school to further help them make the connections between what they learn and how to be successful in the real world.
Living in a foreign country also requires you to be able to communicate in the local language. If this is the case, find opportunities to solve communication problems such as learning the dialogue or figuring out other solutions (such as pointing to objects or drawing images) to be able to communicate effectively with locals.
Finally, find opportunities whenever you can for your child to enjoy learning. Take the time to talk with them about subjects they find interesting, such as current events or general topics. When possible, find museums or cultural events to take them to. If there is a problem in current events they are interested in, you and your child can always brainstorm ways to solve them.
The more you can encourage and motivate your child to enjoy the learning process, as well as develop 21st century skills, the more opportunities they will have to be successful children and adults in society.

About the author

Sarah Li Cain is a freelance writer and international educator. She has taught in three different countries, including South Korea, China and Australia. She currently specializes in helping schools and educational companies develop curriculum and teaching materials that uses knowledge and skills that are necessary for teachers and students to succeed on the 21st century.

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