Using Project-Based Learning to Develop 21st Century Skills

Contributed with Sandy Swartz, M.Ed., Instructional Technology Trainer, St. Tammany Parish Public School System

In today’s learning environment, students need more than academic knowledge to thrive in college, careers and beyond. As a result, educators are dually tasked with increasing core subject comprehension and developing 21st-century skills, especially in STEM. Project-based learning (PBL) is designed to do both. By inviting students to solve real-world challenges in their own community, we can draw the connection between these modern skills and the changing world around us.

It’s safe to assume we all have a general understanding of PBL, and many of us have likely experimented with its use in the classroom. However, adopting PBL as regular practice is not an overnight task. To transition from a traditional approach, consider using TGR EDU: Explore, a collaborative initiative between TGR Foundation and Discovery Education. This is how a project-based learning environment can be implemented in the classroom.

Define 21st-Century Skills and Goals

What exactly are the skills that young people need to master to be successful after school? The National Association of Colleges and Employees identified key college and career competencies as soft skills such as problem solving, leadership and work ethic, in addition to basic technical skills, such as digital fluency.

It can be helpful to remember these focus areas as the four Cs of 21st-century skills when outlining your PBL approach and activities:

  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Collaboration
  • Communication

Lessons that require students to tap into all four skill areas simultaneously are most effective for immersing them in the kind of real work environment that they will soon enter.

Implement Best Practices for PBL to Flourish

The core of every project-based lesson is a cooperation between students and teachers to answer the question, “How do we work together to solve problems?”

Finding the answer should involve all four Cs: creativity helps us imagine an effective solution, because there isn’t usually just one correct way to solve a project-based question. Critical thinking draws the connection between the project and real world, addressing why it matters. Finally, collaboration and communication are both required of every team member in order to incorporate the best of everyone’s ideas in a collective solution.

Let’s break down why each of these skills are critical to students’ lifelong development:

  • Problem-solving in the context of a specific project forces students to assess their metacognitive strategies, or way of thinking, and in turn develop a greater understanding of how they learn. With this awareness, students can visualize how to navigate the path to success through any challenge, in or out of school.
  • Students create and internalize productive work habits, especially the organizational and workflow skills required to work on a team and find applicable answers.
  • After gaining the knowledge, awareness and skills from a project-based lesson, students can almost always apply their flexible learnings to a great range of settings, like other subject areas.
  • I’ve noticed a significant increase in students’ motivation and self-esteem by working in team settings. Students who had lower drive in the classroom started to speak up and do so confidently.

To set up students for success, teachers must set clear expectations, especially if you are first exploring project-based activities with your class. Students need to know what to work toward in order to feel motivated to get there. Before diving into a PBL lesson, establish a few cooperative learning ground rules:

  • Everyone should do their best to participate.
  • Even in a team, each member is held accountable for their project responsibilities.
  • While sharing knowledge is important, listening is more important.
  • Pay attention to your problem-solving techniques and consider how they would translate to a real-world problem.

Address Common Challenges to PBL

Each learning environment has its own set of obstacles that can hinder cooperation. In any team-based learning scenario, students must interact with one another and, more importantly, listen to each other’s ideas. Recognizing the contributions of others doesn’t come naturally to everyone, especially young children. I consider it my responsibility to facilitate and restore balance.

Here are some examples of challenges you might encounter in the classroom. If a team is one-sided or being dominated by one or a few students, consider assigning a ‘side quest,’ or a smaller task within the lesson for that student to work through while the rest of the group works toward the larger solution. If students are shy and struggling to be heard, give the group sentence starters to share their thoughts.

To maintain focus on the mission at hand, you might find success with a ‘division of labor’ chart for the group to assign roles and be held accountable for their part of the project. This way, everyone is working toward a smaller goal to meet the larger goal.

The real-world applications of project-based learning are endless and, in the case of today’s students, essential for lasting success in college, careers and life.

Recall the four Cs. Put these skills to the test with PBL so students can discover approaches to problem-solving and learn how to translate them to their own local communities, or globally. PBL can be the launchpad for students to grow as learners and become enthusiastic about finding creative solutions to improve our world.

Looking to get started now? Consider this lesson plan to introduce your students to PBL. Similar lesson plans and classroom activities can be found in Discovery Education Experience on the TGR EDU: Explore Channel.