Andrew Miller

Ensuring Critical Thinking in Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning (PBL) can create engaging learning for all students, but that depth of learning requires careful, specific design. Part of this engagement is the element of critical thinking. Complex problem solving and higher-order thinking skills, coupled with other elements such as authenticity, voice, and choice, create an engaging context for learning.

One of the essential elements of a PBL project is the teaching and assessing of 21st century skills, including collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. The key takeaway here is teaching AND assessing. You cannot assess something you do not teach. How do we teach critical thinking? Through intentional instruction and intentional experiences. Therefore we need to make sure that the overall PBL journey is one that has both.

Here are some elements of a PBL project that you can double- and triple-check to make sure your students are critically thinking.

  • Driving Question: Through repeated practice, you can create a rigorous driving question that is open-ended, complex, and at the same time kid-friendly. A driving question is not "Google-able" but may contain many "on-the-surface" questions. By creating a driving question that requires higher-order thinking skills, the overall project will be infused with critical thinking, as it is present and used throughout the entire project. If you need help with a driving question, please check out these posts in which I go into more detail.
  • Audience and Purpose: One of the pitfalls that teachers can run into when designing their projects is picking a mediocre purpose and audience. When that happens, the product often becomes a regurgitation of knowledge. If the audience of the project is just the teacher, then the product may or may not have a rigorous purpose that requires critical thinking. If the project is for an outside audience, the purpose may become more complex, because that audience's lens and needs are unique and challenging. If you pick an audience outside of the classroom and a purpose that is rigorous and challenging, then the project will require some critical thinking.
  • In-Depth Inquiry: Inquiry is a process that requires investigation, questioning, interpreting, and creating. This process is repeated over and over, because the inquiry itself cannot be finished in cycle. When creating a project, ask yourself if the project will require repeated cycles through the inquiry process. In-depth inquiry leads to repeated moments of critical thinking.

Don't forget that when you demand critical-thinking skills, then you must scaffold these thinking skills with lessons, modeling, and so forth. If you are demanding that students evaluate, you must teach them how. This ensures success on the project and, more important, that students are learning how to critically think.

The Buck Institute for Education has a great project design rubric that can help you refine your PBL projects to ensure the highest-quality learning environment and includes the elements above. This rubric, coupled with the lens of critical thinking as part of the design, can ensure both engagement and deeper learning.

Andrew K. Miller is an educator and consultant. He is a National Faculty member for ASCD and the Buck Institute for Education. Connect with Miller on Twitter @betamiller.

Comments (5)

John Bennett

February 21, 2012

The statement that “A driving question is not ‘Google-able’ ...” is so important.  Students are always seeking the most direct route to their efforts; a single search only reinforces that wish.  It also in fact tends to divert attention to other components of effective problem solving central to PBL;  such as understanding, organizing, ...

With attention to insure grade-level and real-world questions, I seek to include as much student team project definition as possible.  This provides true problem solving experience - including critical thinking!

Keven Kroehler

February 21, 2012

“You cannot assess something you do not teach.”

We must be very careful with this statement.  We as teachers are always assessing informally what students know, even if we did not teach it.  Do they have the computer skills to handle this assignment - even if I didn’t teach it? Can they read well enough to understand this document - even if I did not teach them to read?  We must also exercise great care if this refers to formal assessment.  If we truly are looking for problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking we need to assess these, but if the teacher has to teach it then is it creative?  Let’s not put a fake ceiling on learning.  We must not limit learning to what the teacher is able to teach.  Students will come up with creative solutions, products, and ways of thinking if we let them.  Let’s assess students on those things and even give them credit for it!

Jim Davis

February 21, 2012

How odd that we must label as 21st Century skills the enduring human capacities to collaborate, communicate and think critically. Perhaps they only endure in areas other than education policy, since so little “skilled” manifestation of any of them appear there.  JSD

Lloyda King

February 22, 2012

This sounds great. Let’s be more autonomy supportive so that students can think for themselves. Sometimes as teachers we are afraid to let students be assertive. How else can they have autonomy and be creative thinkers. Our job is not simply to Teach! Teach! Teach! But to encourage creativity amongst our students.

03/09/12 Reflection and Assignment | 2011-2012 Coa

February 27, 2012

Share |

Blog Archive

Blog Tags