PBL Nurtures Powerful, Compassionate, Wise, Creative Citizens


Yesterday morning a BIE colleague of mine, Sarah Field, sent an email containing a quote that really struck me as a reminder of why I became a teacher. It's from Frederick Douglass, written when our nation was divided over slavery:

"It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."  

Educators have always been keenly aware of the importance of our work in a democratic society. Now more than ever it's vital that we, as Sarah says, “Keep our eyes on the prize: the transformation of our educational system to be one that nurtures powerful, compassionate, wise, and creative citizens.”

Of course, we believe that transformation must include Project Based Learning. Students who have tackled challenging projects in school become citizens who are (and will need to be in the coming years) confident in their own power to change the world, often by acting locally. Students who have done projects that involve service to others and solving real-world problems in their communities gain compassion. Students who have done projects that required them to navigate new situations and gain new skills as they are needed will be ready to adapt to a changing economy. When they persist in overcoming the hurdles that inevitably present themselves in projects, students develop grit and resilience, character traits we all will need in troubled times.

PBL contributes to creating a wise citizenry for a democracy. When students conduct inquiry to find answers to a driving question in a project, they learn to be critical thinkers. They know how to separate fact from fiction and pierce a seductive but flawed argument. To recognize bias, resist propaganda, and find reliable sources of information. To make reasoned judgments based on evidence, not just emotion or blind faith.

Some PBL-practiced creativity and innovation will come in handy too, because we'll be faced with some “wicked problems” ahead. Add to that another set of skills and attitudes taught by many projects which students could use today, because so many pressing issues are global in nature: cross-cultural competence and communication. In globally-oriented projects students gain an understanding of what all humans share, even if our cultures differ, and they see the need to more deeply understand the “other.” Finally, when students consider their public audience or the end-user of a product, PBL teaches empathy--which is the first step in design thinking, a process many projects follow. We're going to need a lot of empathy in the future, to help us bridge divides so a diverse society can make progress together.

Equity Work to Do
Another BIE colleague, Brandon Wiley, replied to Sarah's email by emphasizing our equity goals for PBL. He said, “We need to redouble our efforts to defend the rights of others, advocate for those underrepresented and fight for truth, the Constitution, tolerance, basic decency and justice for all. We will and already do work in communities that need education (especially PBL) to be the path to a better future for their children.”

All in This Together
Yesterday morning, before I saw my colleagues' email thread, I did a webinar about Project Based Learning for teachers in Europe-mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, and a few from Italy and Turkey. They, like more and more American teachers, are turning to PBL not just because it's a more engaging way to teach their subject. Many of their countries are dealing with issues like those in the United States: immigration and societal change, terrorism, threats to the environment, and the need for good government and a healthy economy. These teachers see PBL as one of the best ways to equip their students to meet such challenges. It was nice to be reminded we're all in this together, we educators, no matter where we are.

I'll end by quoting eloquent Sarah again, with a message for all PBL teachers and school leaders: “Let's refocus our work together on what matters most. Let's think about how we can relate to each other and to the work in new ways, so that we can plant seeds of transformation, peace, and justice.”


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