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How Project-Based Learning Builds 21st-Century Skills

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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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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Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Chief Operating Officer, Francis Parker School, San Diego


I only disagree with one thing in this blog: I don't think it is all that hard!

Last year one of our 4th grade teachers asked me to come in to her class and see if we could introduce a PBL-orientation to their study of California history. She had read my book, The Falconer, and wanted to see if we really could integrate higher level 21C skills at such a young age. It took us all of about an hour to spec out a set of group project activities; your bullet point list in this blog were all included. The students spent less time, learned more, and were able to clearly articulate what they had learned. I just don't think it is all that hard if teachers are given a glimpse of what it looks like, and some activities that enhance the skill set.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Hi Grant,
I appreciate your optimism! The scenario you describe has lot of positive factors: a teacher motivated to make a change, support from a knowledgeable mentor (you), opportunity for collaboration, a willingness to get started with do-able steps, and then, of course, attention to results.
Thanks for sharing.

Bob Amses's picture

Great article! I think that one of the most important aspects of 21st Century Skills is to realize that the profile of students is changing more rapidly than ever before. No longer do we need to wait for generations to pass; today's student is radically different from those of even five years ago and his expectations of the educational system presents new challenges. Project-based learning brings relevance to the process and underscores the essential nature of collaboration and analysis from a wide variety of perspectives focused on a common objective. My hope is that educators can recognize that the landscape is changing continually, and that we possess the vision to impact the future instead of being intimidated by it.

Michele McKeone's picture
Michele McKeone
Founder of Autism Expressed

It was during my undergrad while studying streaming media (before there was youtube) that I became engrossed by the idea of media literacy as an integral part of education. I had no idea then the path it would lead me to. Now I am the Founder of Autism Expressed [], an online learning platform that teaches adolescents with Autism to use digital and social media to pursue their transition to independence.

We are now running a small fundraising campaign and would love support from the Edutopia community. Check it out and spread the word! Thank you!!!!

Autism Expressed

Peggy Knock's picture
Peggy Knock
2.5-5 year old teacher from St. Louis Mo

I am new to this and my class is new to structured learning they are 2.5- 5 years old.We are located near the Missouri Botanical Garden and the children are very interested in nature in general and insects in particular. I am seeking suggestions concerning how to begin PBL in my class any input would be appreciated.

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