Skills Integrated PBL Delivers Liberating Education

At Envision Education, we strive for high outcomes for all students, regardless of background. While this may seem like a commonplace statement, at least in national rhetoric, the achievement and opportunity gaps experienced by low-income students clearly demonstrate that as a culture, we have a long way to go to ensure that every student attends a school that develops him or her to the fullest extent. This means we are all faced with a challenge: how do we as educators ensure that every child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential? 

Some educators focus on skill development: they work tirelessly to build up literacy, numeracy, and other academic skills so that students can perform better on tests and standard assessments, leading to more open doors in the future. Some focus on providing rich project-based learning (PBL) experiences, recognizing rightly that content is critically important and that children learn best by doing and by creating something during the learning process. 

At Envision Education, we advocate for an integrated approach; we believe that skills-integrated PBL is one of the best pedagogies for supporting all students to achieve at higher levels and to be able to choose educational paths for themselves as a result. As we described in our recent article on Ed Week’s Learning Deeply blog, no student should ever have to choose between great skill development and great project learning experiences. Just as middle and upper income families rightly expect their children to have access to both, we demand the same for lower income students.

For these students, education is the most powerful way they can transform their circumstances and move out of poverty. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, describes this kind of education in a way that resonates for us at Envision:

“Liberating education consists in acts of cognition,
transferrals of information.”   

What does this mean? We believe this means that an education that truly frees a person and allows them to fully grow and develop is one that actively engages them. It does not simply transfer information or teach isolated skills, disconnected from relevant topics. Liberating, transformative education empowers students by showing them what they are capable of. This kind of education confers a responsibility on schools and teachers, particularly those working with low-income students who have typically been left behind by the status quo education system: we must combine content-rich PBL with critical skill development, so that students can experience transformative, empowering education. 


PBL Leads to Empowerment
How does skills-integrated PBL lead to empowerment? What does this mean in practice, in an actual classroom? 

A favorite example of ours (and a timely one!) is our California Propositions Campaign Ads project. First developed and implemented by Justin Wells, a founding Envision teacher, this project charges students with selecting a proposition of importance to them and doing extensive research into the issue in order to produce a campaign commercial in support of or against their initiative. During Election 2008, students concluded this rigorous project by hosting a public campaign information night, right before Election Day. Their commercials became real contributions to the political process, helping voters understand the issues and decide how to vote. The real-world impact of this project provided the urgency and relevance; the project structure helped students develop Critical Literacy skills, including:

  1. Annotation: Learning how to analyze text-based information, how to make connections between a text and other ideas, how to give and receive peer feedback in order to strengthen an argument
  2. Leveraging evidence: Learning to use annotated texts to defend a claim and provide logical evidence to back up an argument; learning to use evidence to legitimize their point of view and move beyond “opinion.”
  3. Revision and Reflection: Learning to grow as a writer and thinker through the revision process and by identifying what one’s strengths and areas of growth are; learning to incorporate new information and feedback from peers and teachers; learning how to improve and how to think about what’s next.

With those strong skills at the core, the learning targets for this project will include not only content, not only rich process experiences (like collaboration), but also specific academic and cognitive learning targets such as:

  • I can annotate a proposition to deeply understand the proposition's intent.
  • I can list pros and cons of the proposition.
  • I can describe the benefits of the proposition and who would benefit from it if passed.
  • I can describe the negative impacts of the proposition and who would be affected if it passed.
  • I can assert a claim and defend it with evidence.
  • I can describe the opposing position and explain the flaws of their argument.

Combining rigorous academics with engaging, real-world content is the key to providing students with the kind of education that will transform their lives. Engagement is the key: we must seek subjects, issues, and projects that are relevant to our students, so that they can find meaning and power in practicing and improving academic and cognitive skills. Annotating may not be the most exciting thing to learn how to do, but if a student can make the connection between that critical academic skill and being able to leverage evidence so that she is able to make a strong case for her point of view, annotation and evidence will become valuable to her. With that value comes powerful motivation to practice and improve – the holy grail of learning that all teachers want for their students. A liberating education by definition creates and sustains a student’s motivation to continue to learn and grow, so that they can impact an issue they care about. 

We know skills-integrated PBL is making difference for our students. A few weeks ago, a group of teachers-in-training from Japan visited one of our schools. One of our guests asked Aurora, an Envision senior, why she liked learning through projects. In a perfect illustration of how PBL can transform a learner and increase student engagement, Aurora responded with this: “Ben Franklin has a quote: ‘Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I might remember. Involve me and I will understand.’”


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