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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How Project-Based Learning Builds 21st-Century Skills

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Back in 2005, West Virginia embarked on a bold effort to reinvent public education. The vision was ambitious, especially for a rural state with a high poverty rate. "We're not tinkering around the edges here -- we are completely transforming every aspect of our system," then-Superintendent Steven Paine told Edutopia in the early years of the initiative. To make change happen, the state Department of Education enlisted a willing group of partners: West Virginia teachers.

Teachers took part in summer institutes where they learned how to be successful with project-based learning, a strategy for teaching 21st-century skills along with important academic content. In the early years of the initiative, the Buck Institute for Education provided in-depth professional development in how to design, manage, and assess PBL. (Full disclosure: I'm a member of the BIE National Faculty.)

Before long, West Virginia was capitalizing on the leadership of its homegrown PBL experts. These early adopters of PBL began sharing best practices and project plans with colleagues, both in person and on an online platform called Teach 21.

Classroom Changes

What's changed in the classroom since the initiative began?

Research presented last week at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting offers some insights. Teachers who use PBL -- and who also have taken part in extended professional development -- report more teaching and assessment of 21st-century skills, compared with a closely matched comparison group. That means students in PBL classrooms are spending more time learning about important content through experiences that emphasize critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication.

(To download the full report, Using Project Based Learning to Teach 21st Century Skills: Finding from a Statewide Initiative, go to the BIE research library).

For a closer look at what this looks like, consider just a few examples of the learning experiences that happen more frequently in PBL classrooms:

  • Students compare information from different sources before completing an assignment
  • Students draw their own conclusions based on analysis of numbers, facts, or relevant information
  • Students try to solve complex problems or answer questions that have no single correct solution
  • Students give feedback to peers or assess other students' work
  • Students convey their ideas using media other than a written paper (such as posters, blogs, or videos)
  • Students answer questions in front of an audience
  • Students generate their own ideas about how to confront a problem

These indicators paint a picture of students who are able to think on their feet, contribute to a team effort, and work creatively when they confront new challenges.

West Virginia teachers have been able to implement PBL "as a way to teach and assess 21st-century skills without sacrificing academic rigor," authors of the study point out. They also note that educators are managing to make this shift in instruction with diverse learners.

What's more, all the PBL teachers in the study have provided professional development to colleagues. These early adopters of PBL are walking the talk when it comes to collaboration and lifelong learning.

Lessons to Share

When I met with teachers in West Virginia a few years ago, I was struck by the culture of collaboration that has taken hold there. School reform isn't being done "to" teachers. Rather, educators are helping to make change happen by rethinking their classroom practices, adopting new tools and strategies, and then sharing what they know what their colleagues.

Is change hard work? No doubt. But the teachers seem to be sticking with it for the long haul, with the help of sustained professional development and time for collaboration. Once teachers make the shift to PBL, then students get to spend more of their time developing the skills they will need for the future.

How does your state support teachers who want to make the shift to project-based learning? Please share your stories in the comments.

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