Ever tried to untangle a knot comprised of a thousand rubber bands? Or find the end of invisible tape that seems to have stuck to the roll?

It’s frustrating. And oftentimes damn near impossible.

So is trying to become a 21st century teacher or learner without a system in place to simplify the process.

Based on a report from the World Economic Forum, the top four to five skills of the future are ones not being taught effectively in schools today. These include complex problem- solving, critical thinking, creativity, and collaborating effectively with others.

And as earnest as schools have been to teach these skills, without a system for delivery, they are often taught in isolated context. A short STEM activity in a one- hour period every other day. An after school program that meets twice a week in the afternoon. An experiential learning trip that sends students on a pre- planned weekend trip twice a year.

But what if there was a simple structure that could help students acquire many, if not all of the 21st century skills as part of the curriculum, during the school day.

Fortunately there is.

The Simplicity of Project- Based Learning

A well- planned and authentic project- based experience helps us grow and develop 21st century learners. It combines previously isolated subjects; connects students to their local and global community; and helps them naturally acquire hard to teach skills like collaboration, communication, creativity, and the other ‘C’s’ deemed as skills of the future.

Here’s a simple diagram I created that represents the simplicity of PBL when done correctly.

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What this Looks Like in a Real Project- Based Experience

So how does teaching and learning look like in a real and authentic PBL experience? Let’s take an example from the International School of Beijing, designed for 11-12 year olds.

Project Clean Water:

When students continually inquired as to why the waterway located closest to school and only footsteps away from many of their homes emitted such a foul smell, the idea for a project was born. How do we use data to clean it up? In the process of this deep investigation, students would complete in- depth research around the problem; interview locals, organizations and businesses most directly effected, and produce a proposal and innovation to present to the community that would help create a solution.

Below is a break down of the learning they acquired along the way.

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Complex Problem- Solver: Understanding the root causes and effects of the poor water quality required deep investigation and the ability to think like biological scientists.

Obtaining Water Samples.

Critical Thinking: Similar to problem- solving skills, students had to think critically around what information they had gathered was most relevant to making a positive impact. They created charts, graphs and complex data logs to track changes in the waterway and seek patterns.

Testing Water Quality

Cross- Curricular Thinker:In order to fully understand the problem, students had to work across disciplines. They used mathematics for tracking data; science and chemistry to understand PH, coliform bacteria, turbidity, and their effects on the river’s ecosystem; and Social Studies to understand the effect of urbanization on the village close by.

Collaborator: Students collaborated with a number of organizations in both investigating the problem and in developing solutions. A few local NGOs helped students with water testing; and local businesses agreed to put some of our students’ solution to test.

Curious Inquirer: The investigation included open- ended questions that required students to be flexible in the solutions they devised. For example, when one student learned that most items recycled near the waterway still ended up in the same landfill; he pursued a more hands-on way to approach the problem.

Culturally Aware Citizen: Students had to understand cultural sensitivities when investigating the problem. They had to understand the problem the perspective of the local businesses that operated on the river banks; the village that depended on the river for their livelihood; and the governments’ process for enacting public policy.

Interviewing and Empathizing with Villagers Effected by the Problem

Communicator: Students had to communicate their solutions in a way that would be well- received by the community. They created simple presentations; prototypes of their solutions; and bi-lingual scripts to help make their message accessible by the local people.

Presenting her innovation to improve water quality to the community.

Creator: Students had to carefully consider their innovations in the context of the impact they would have on the community. One student devised a solar water- filter. Another created reusable bags for the local grocery store made out of old t-shirts. Another, toxic free cosmetics that wouldn’t end up in the waterways. And my personal favorite- bamboo bicycles to foster alternative, more sustainable modes of transportation.

Creating a solar water filter.
Sharing her reusable bag solution with community members.

Help with Designing and Managing PBL Experiences

I’ll be honest, designing and implementing high- quality project- based experiences like these is not easy. They require continual tweaking and constant reflection.

However, with the help of an expert mentor who’s been there before, teachers can learn the tricks and strategies that will simplify the process. Through a blended model of online trainings, hands- on workshops, and connection to a wider community of practitioners, teachers are equipped with the confidence to get started right away.

Would love to help you along in your journey. Reach out to see if we are a good fit.