Back to School

project based education, project based learning education
The Morning Call, Cesar L. Laure/AP

Project-Based Education Prepares Students for 21st Century Challenges

September 23, 2008 06:56 AM
by Colleen Brondou
Project-based learning is being used to prepare students to tackle the issues of the 21st century by challenging them with real-world problems.

Learning in the 21st Century

As the new school year gains momentum, schools around the country focus on getting students motivated and inspired to learn. Though theories abound on how best to do this, many schools are turning away from a focus on test preparation brought on with No Child Left Behind. Instead, schools are taking a project-based learning approach that incorporates a “21st Century Learning” curriculum.

According to The New York Times, worries about American students not keeping pace with technology and globalization was the reason for the shift. In response, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a coalition of technology companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Dell, and the Department of Education, was created in 2002. The Partnership nurtures a project-based approach utilizing technology to teach the skills of “collaboration, systems thinking, self-direction and communication, both online and in person.”

High schools around the country are testing out the new curriculum this fall. In Virginia Beach, Va., for example, Jim Merrill, the schools superintendent, is a champion of getting students interested in learning “by making it relevant and hands-on” with an emphasis on “preparing students with 21st-century skills such as writing, innovation, motivation and collaboration.” 

The North Daviess High School in Washington, Ind., phased the new 21st Century Learning curriculum into the freshman class this year. Dr. Suellen Reed, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, visited the school in August and was excited to see the new curriculum in action. According to The Washington Times-Herald, “21st Century Learning uses the curriculum style to pointedly teach students the connections between subjects and prepare them for the work world.”

Background: Project-based learning

Though 21st Century Learning may be the latest craze at the high school level, at its core it is good old project-based learning. Project-based education has proven quite effective in the grade school and middle school environments.

Patrick Sweeney, a fifth grade teacher at Boones Ferry Primary School in Ore., consistently uses project-based learning principles in his classroom. Last year he found inspiration outside of the classroom when he took his students to Pringle Creek Community, a sustainable development in Salem, Ore., that uses the latest green building technologies.

According to the Wilsonville Spokesman, after the field trip, students had to design their own “green” homes and then construct a scale model of the home using cardboard and other recycled materials. In addition to valuable math skills, the project taught students about architecture and design, water conservation, energy efficiency, recycling and more.

Even the National Teacher of the Year, Michael Geisen, a seventh grade science teacher in Prineville, Ore., is a proponent of project-based approaches. According to The Oregonian, Geisen “says educators are shortsighted if they focus on getting students to pass the next standardized test without equipping their students with the creativity, teamwork and other important lifetime skills that can't be off-shored or delegated to a machine.”

Opinion & Analysis: Project-based learning vs. No Child Left Behind

Still, there are those who see passing “the next standardized test” as a top priority, and who credit No Child Left Behind with making progress in schools—particularly with students who might otherwise fall through the cracks, such as low-income students, special education students and students learning English as a second language. “NCLB has held our collective feet to the fire to say, ‘What about every single kind?’” said Aeylin Summers, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the North Clackamas School District, The Oregonian reports.

When state and federal standards have to be met in order to secure funding, many teachers question whether project-based learning can adequately prepare students for standardized tests. In “Put to the Test: Confronting Concerns About Project Learning,” Edutopia, the Web site of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, examines the concerns many teachers have about project-based approaches in the classroom.

Reference: The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Project-based learning

Related Topics: ‘Play-Based Education Used to Teach Conservation’


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines