George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning

An Adaptable Framework for Project-Based Learning

The National Geographic Society has a five-step PBL model and resource library to foster deep learning whether students are in school or at home.

August 25, 2020
Middle school aged girl working on a school project at home with paper and scissors
MediaProduction / iStock

When school buildings closed at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, educators and students around the world unexpectedly entered new territory. For many, it was their first experience teaching remotely, and for some, it came with challenges. As one educator put it, “It feels lonely. It feels different. It feels like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”

Educators and students had to find innovative ways to connect with families, collaborate with peers, and engage students in meaningful learning. They were like explorers on an expedition, navigating and problem-solving in an unfamiliar, challenging landscape and often without the tools they needed.

As state, district, and school leaders determine the safest and best approach for the 2020–21 school year, whether it’s students learning remotely, in person with social-distancing requirements, or through a hybrid model, one thing is certain: School will look different. While educators and young people forge ahead into this new normal, skills like adaptability, creativity, and collaboration are critical as they navigate challenges that lie ahead. These skills are reflective of the core beliefs and values of the National Geographic Society and are integral to developing an explorer’s mindset.

One way to foster an explorer’s mindset—regardless of where and how students learn—is through project-based learning (PBL). Project-based learning engages students in independent work such as research that can happen anywhere and anytime, as well as working with peers, which can happen in person or virtually. This is one reason why PBL is particularly well-suited for a hybrid-learning environment in which some learners are working independently at home, while others are working collaboratively in the classroom. Another is that PBL provides learners an opportunity to develop critical, lifelong skills in an efficient way, which is increasingly important as many schools implement abbreviated schedules. We heard from several teachers in the National Geographic Educator Community that a project-based approach has helped their students and them make a smoother transition to virtual learning.

The National Geographic Society’s Geo-Inquiry Process offers a lens that educators can use to guide all students, in any circumstances, in learning that helps them develop an explorer’s mindset in the next school year and beyond. There are five steps to this process.

Step-by-Step Guide to the Geo-Inquiry Process

1. Ask: Generate a question. Educators encourage students to explore issues of interest by asking driving questions. These questions are essential for both explorers and young people to consider as they seek to understand the world. A student might ask, for example: What effect does racial injustice have in my community? Why is it happening there? What can we do?

2. Collect: Gather information. Next, students research and gather data to formulate hypotheses to their questions. This can be done through investigating online sources, conducting interviews with community members and experts, filling out online surveys, taking photographs, and doing field measurements and observations (from a safe distance).

3. Visualize: Organize and analyze the information. Once students have acquired data and information, educators can help them visualize the data in compelling ways, such as maps or graphs, that convey their understanding of the issue and support it with evidence. For example, a student completing a project on the Covid-19 pandemic in their community might create a color-coded map to display case counts in different neighborhoods as well as a bar chart showing the average age or income in those areas.

4. Create: Develop stories. With an analysis of the information they gathered, students demonstrate the answers to their inquiry questions through various ways of storytelling. An important part of the story-creation process is identifying what outcomes they would like to happen based on their findings, and which audiences they might need to reach for that outcome to occur.

5. Act: Share stories. In the final step, students take action by sharing their stories. Again, remote learning can accommodate a variety of storytelling options. They might choose to host a webinar, create a website, or produce a video to present their findings and analysis.
 
The Geo-Inquiry Process is a model that can be applied to any subject, and even multiple subjects at once. For example, students might explore systems and microbes in the human body from a scientific perspective, as well as through a cultural lens of how communities spread and contain outbreaks of infectious diseases. Such an interdisciplinary approach allows for collaboration among educators and a multidimensional learning opportunity for young people.

This school year, like any other, teachers want to spark curiosity in learners and help them deepen their understanding of the world. Through project-based learning, educators can help young people cultivate an explorer’s mindset and equip them with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to seek solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. As one of our young explorers said, “Young people are the world’s most untapped resource for hope.” Let’s encourage them to ask, collect, visualize, create, and act.

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  • Project-Based Learning
  • Critical Thinking
  • Interest-Based Learning
  • Online Learning
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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George Lucas Educational Foundation