Breaking with Tradition, Korean Teachers Explore PBL

During a recent visit to Seoul, South Korea, many teachers told me how much easier it must be to introduce project-based learning in the U.S. Their country, they explained, has a longstanding tradition of high-stakes tests and nationally adopted textbooks. Pressure to get into top colleges begins in the elementary years. Private tutoring is a regular after-school activity for many Korean children, who already spend more hours in school than most of their peers around the globe. Bottom line: Education is just too serious for PBL.

Little did they know, but they were describing many of the same perceived barriers that I often hear from American teachers. Whether the concern is high-stakes tests, scripted curriculum, parent expectations, or lack of planning time, obstacles can seem insurmountable.

And yet, a growing number of educators in both countries are willing to challenge tradition if they anticipate benefits for learners. In the past decade, we’ve seen a surge of interest in PBL across the United States. In Korea, too, there’s increasing recognition that young people who can excel on tests may not be adequately prepared for careers that require collaboration and creative problem solving.

That was a clear takeaway from the Seoul International Education Forum. I was invited to discuss Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning, co-authored with John Larmer and John Mergendoller. The book, which explains the rationale for Gold Standard PBL, has been translated into Korean—more evidence of the growing interest in PBL among Korean educators.

As another sign of interest, some 80 Korean teachers applied to take part in a pre-conference workshop and share their PBL experiences with colleagues. Examples came from across grade levels and subject areas.

An Air Pollution Project

One project selected for a longer case study was presented by social studies teacher Su Young Lee from Buk Seoul Middle School. For the interdisciplinary project, students tackled the very real problem of air pollution and applied their understanding of science, social studies, and Korean language to propose solutions.

Among Lee’s insights about what made the project successful were these highlights, which align with elements of Gold Standard PBL (in boldface below):

Micro dust is a serious and often noticeable source of air pollution in Seoul. Lee and a science teacher colleague were walking to school together on a particularly gray day last spring. The science teacher mentioned that she had a unit coming up about the atmosphere of the Earth and wondered if she might incorporate research about how to reduce micro dust. Here was a challenging problem or question to jumpstart project planning. “We all had to breathe incredibly bad air. Every day, we heard about micro dust on TV news. Students recognized the seriousness of micro dust in their own lives,” Lee said.

This project happened to unfold during an election year. Presidential candidates had recently outlined their policy proposals to address micro dust. By asking her students to weigh in on these policy ideas, Lee recognized the opportunity for an authentic project that would combine social studies and science. The project soon expanded to include Korean language when a third teacher overheard their planning conversations and asked to join them.

Working in teams, Lee’s students researched micro dust causes and generated their own policy proposals to address the problem. Teams shared diverse ideas (demonstrating voice and choice), and their classmates offered critical feedback (improving proposals through critique and revision). Ideas ranged from wind turbines atop individual homes to car-free areas in the city center to apps that would encourage the use of public transportation. Each plan addressed both policy implications and scientific findings. 

In May, when President Moon took office, Lee’s students submitted their micro dust proposals to him via a website designed for stakeholder engagement. Some students also attended a public forum where they shared their proposals alongside concerned adults from across Seoul. In multiple ways, they shared their learning with an audience that extended well beyond the classroom (public product).

Common Challenges

Lee noted one more factor that contributed to the success of the project: teacher collaboration. Her school is designated as an innovation school, which means there is freedom for teachers to experiment within the national curriculum. There’s also designated time for teachers to observe their colleagues’ classrooms in action. Lee shares office space with her teaching team, creating natural opportunities for shared project planning. Together, those factors have shaped a school climate that “values collaboration more than competition,” she says.

One of my takeaways from this global education experience was the recognition that potential barriers to PBL adoption are consistent from one country to the next. But so are solutions. Whether teachers are in South Korea or in the United states, they all need time to plan and reflect on projects with their colleagues. In the end, that’s what will create more authentic learning opportunities for students everywhere.