PBL is Career, College, and "Now" Ready
Project-based learning (PBL) is rightfully touted as a way not only to create engagement in the classroom, but also to prepare students for their lives once they leave the confines of our classrooms. When given an authentic task to complete that is aligned to standards, students engage in an inquiry process, both as a team and individually, to innovate a solution. The task creates engagement in learning content and also 21st century skills. But let's cut to the chase and see exactly what about PBL aligns to aspects of being career and college ready.
Every project in which students engage demands a public presentation of their learning. Similar to a board of directors presentation or a sales pitch, students are required to present their products to the public, whether through YouTube, a formal presentation, a podcast, or a portfolio. The audience usually comprises experts in the field. As in the work world, when there is accountability not only to ourselves, but experts, our level of work increases. Students will do the same. If you give them the opportunity to present to an expert, they will rise to the challenge and emulate a real-world experience.
Driving Question and Student Voice and Choice
These two foundations for PBL are closely related in terms of preparing students for college and careers. The driving question creates a feeling of challenge and interest in solving a real and authentic problem. It can be abstract: "How does who we are as teenagers affect who we become as adults?" It can be concrete: "How do we create an ideal outside classroom for our school?" Regardless, students create authentic products for an audience to answer the question, similar to a project in the real world. In addition, the question is open-ended and complex, and allows for student voice and choice in creating a product to answer the question. In college, although requirements are defined, there is often space for students to express their own viewpoint or method. As adults, we have complex and open-ended questions we answer in the career world every day. Students need to be given the opportunity to not "look for one answer" but solve complex, open-ended questions that allow for different ways of knowing in order to prepare for them for that post-secondary experience.
Revision and Reflection
PBL fosters a culture on ongoing feedback and revision. Students learn that it is OK to make mistakes and revise work. This is counter-paradigm. Some traditional teachers might demand a rough draft, but PBL creates multiple opportunities to revise and reflect on work before the actual due date. Like in the workplace, students critique each other, critique themselves, and receive critique from teachers and experts. It helps to prepare students to be independent in their critique and to continually seek feedback from peers and experts, a skill not taught explicitly at the college or career level, but nevertheless is needed and valued.
21st Century Skills
The Buck Institute for Education currently focuses on three major 21st century skills: collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. All are critical to being prepared for college or career. Whether it's problem solving with teammates, being able to articulate work to a client, or analyzing a solution for effectiveness, all of these skills can be at practice in a PBL project. In fact, they can be taught and assessed. Instead of simply allowing students to experience these 21st century skills, PBL values them as part of the grade and demands teachers not only assess them, but teach them. They are just as important as the content that is being learned in the project.
One of the pitfalls to avoid with the idea of being career- and college-ready is just what the term can imply: "This will matter when you go to college." "This will prepare you for college." As Chris Lehmann in a recent TED talk espoused, "why can't what students do matter now?" Why do we as educators default to the response that this material will help you later? For some kids, that idea of college and career is well out of their realm of possibility. The language of being career- and college-ready will not break through to them. However, when done well, PBL frames the content to be learned in a relevant and engaging current problem. With PBL, you can make students "now" ready. You can make the learning and project matter to them now, honoring them as critical to creating and innovating in the current world around them. Use PBL to not only make your students career- and college-ready, but also "now" ready. By making them "now" ready, you will make them college- and career-ready.