Closing the Global Achievement Gap with PBL

I recently finished reading Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap. The book’s subtitle was what originally interested me: “Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need – and What We Can Do About It.” The book lists 7 survival skills for careers, college, and citizenship. Each skill can be promoted through the use of PBL and is essential for producing students who bridge the achievement gap. Teaching these skills through PBL can finally bring classrooms into the 21st Century.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving: When was the last time you asked students to think critically rather than merely regurgitate information? In fact, in the era of Google, memorizing lots of trivial facts when the answer is merely a click away is less important than the ability to use information. Does your classroom environment ask students to create solutions to problems that have no one right answer?

PBL promotes investigations of new solutions to problems. Ask your students to create a solution to lower the crime statistics in your community and be amazed at the results. Have students design a new pool for your school that is cost effective and meets the approval of the tax paying public. PBL harnesses the power that critical thinking requires of students. Create an open-ended task; let the students investigate, and the solutions to the problems will begin to flow. 
Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence: How often are students asked to work in teams, instead of sitting alone at their desks? Or if they do group work, are they really taught how to collaborate effectively? The workforce today requires constant collaboration between colleagues. Isolation is the less likely option and working in teams is the requirement.
PBL creates an atmosphere with collaboration as the focus. While students must complete some tasks individually, the whole cannot be completed without each individual component. Learning to work together in the classroom creates a student prepared for better workforce production.
Agility and Adaptability: Students all too often are bored in school. They have become immune to the school experience because they are not asked to adapt to new situations. Each year, in each class, the tasks are the same and the results are less promising. In the world beyond the classroom, however, it is a requirement for employees to learn to adapt to new situations, solve new problems, and produce high-end results for an increasingly changing environment.
In PBL students continually face new challenges. With each project, comes a new set of circumstances, new problems, new collaborative partnerships, and newly developing skills. Students need flexibility in their learning to determine the path to take toward greater understanding of the curriculum and standards
Initiative and Entrepreneurship: When is the last time you asked your students to lead the discovery, rather than follow you? Chances are you may not remember. However, in the world beyond the classroom, an employee who does not take the lead is one who is easily expendable.
In PBL students must take charge and work independently. The teacher becomes the facilitator and self-directed learning is key. Who knows, you may even create a PBL experience in which your students run a business!
Effective Oral and Written Communication: Today text-speak is the norm and spelling and grammar are ignored. Thus it is increasingly important to promote effective oral and written communication skills. Do we really want students to start a journal entry that starts a sentence with “IMO”?
In PBL students no longer simply write for a teacher audience or present solely for classmates. Bringing in an outside, professional audience necessitates effective communication. Students must learn to get to the point efficiently and with conviction. Presenting or writing to a professional means taking a professional approach, or your ideas are more likely to be ignored.
Accessing and Analyzing Information: Google is the crutch that students rely on for the answers to questions. However, we must determine if our students really know how to analyze information or if they even know how to effectively search for that information. Does the first webpage provide the right answer or are students even conducting a search for the right information?
PBL requires students to effectively research and evaluate material to create answers to given challenges. Data is processed, findings interpreted, strategies planned, and information synthesized.  In all phases of the challenge, students are actively seeking the information rather than passively receiving it.
Curiosity and Imagination: Children today rely on video game entertainment and teachers wonder why students rarely are curious about our curriculum. Boredom quickly sets in before the end of the first month of school. However, it is the responsibility of teachers to stimulate the curiosity of our students and require them to use their imaginations to solve authentic problems.
PBL is a means for students to tap into their imaginations. Pose an authentic, relevant, and engaging problem for students to solve and watch the piquing of the curiosity and the creative imaginations that flow.  For example, the classroom has been transformed into a “CSI” crime scene and students are asked to solve the case using dramatic evidence and authentic forensic techniques. 
Hopefully this post has left you asking yourself questions. Are you thinking critically about PBL and wondering with whom you could collaborate on the creation of PBL experiences? Are you able to adapt your teaching methods to include PBL or are you satisfied with your teaching? Are you ready to start a new classroom initiative that includes PBL? Are you prepared to require your students to communicate effectively to professional panels and write about their findings? Are you going to merely give your students the answers to memorize or teach them how to effectively analyze information in order to apply it to new situations? Finally, has your curiosity prompted you to investigate PBL in more detail?
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at PBLWorks
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