I’m currently a candidate to become a member of the National Faculty of the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), the premier organization promoting project based learning (PBL) in schools. As a teacher I have fully embraced the benefits of PBL in my classroom. Done well, it inspires and engages students, teaches meaningful content in ways students are more likely to understand and remember and requires them to use and refine 21st Century Learning Skills such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication.
A lot has been written about how practicing these skills through authentic learning experiences will produce students who are college and career ready and how employers are desperate for a workforce proficient in these skills. This week, however, as I reflected on BIE’s 8 essential elements, it occurred to me how useful these steps would be for any person to use as a part of their basic life skills. I had not previously thought of my life as being comprised of an ongoing set of projects, but speaking as a typical American, overwhelmed by an unending ‘To Do’ list, I imagined how this process would provide helpful structure and guidance for me.
Here are some of the items on my never ending ‘To Do’ list:
• Converting to a more environmentally sound household
• Planning for a transition from parent of teenager to empty nester
• Adopting a more healthy eating/exercise routine
• Reassessing my finances to cut expenses
• Assisting my aging father as he enters the last years of his life
• Imagining how to be a present, loving grandparent to new grandchildren who live in another state
• Figuring out how to incorporate my passion for writing in an already crowded life
• Working to keep up with new technology and social media
The steps delineated by BIE for project based learning, could be used for this list of unaccomplished goals and resolutions.
Here are BIE’s 8 essential elements for PBL:
1. Significant Content
2. 21st Century Competencies
3. In-Depth Inquiry
4. Driving Question
5. Need To Know
6. Voice and Choice
7. Revision and Reflection
8. Public Audience
Since Paulo Freire Freedom School’s curricular foci are social justice and environmental sustainability, I will choose the first “project” listed — becoming a more environmentally sound household — to apply BIE’s 8 essential elements.
Using the BIE model, projects are launched with an entry event to get students interested and motivated in the subject. In my case I might start with some intentionally inspiring experience to help me stay committed to my project. For instance, I might watch the documentary, “No Impact Man” in which a New York family abandon their high consumption 5th Avenue lifestyle and try to live a year off the grid making no net environmental impact.
Next, I would define the scope of my research. In a school setting the first two PBL essential elements, significant content and 21st century competencies, determine our curriculum – what students need to know and learn to do. In my real life example, the ‘curriculum’ will be established not by state standards or the Common Core, but by my Driving Question and what I would ‘Need to Know’. I could frame my driving question something like, “What can I do in order to minimize my environmental footprint?” To answer this, my next step would be to create a list of questions (needs to know) that I would research. Here are some examples:
• How environmentally impacting is eating meat?
• How significant is eating locally? Grass-fed? Organic?
• How much more will changing my diet cost? What amount of increase will my budget allow for?
• What are other viable options for commuting to work?
• How much energy is used by leaving appliances/technology plugged in?
• How much do solar panels cost? / What is the process for getting them?
• What is the process for composting food?
• Are there things that I am currently throwing away that I could recycle? How would I do that?
• Are there places that sell products with less packaging?
Research would include talking with experts (many of whom are friends and colleagues), finding on-line resources, and keeping a journal of notes of resources, finding, plans and commitments.
Equipped with this new knowledge I could create a plan for incorporating certain environmentally sensitive steps, thinking through the pros and cons of each step in order to prioritize them. I could also create a time line with smaller, more manageable goal posts along the way so the project would not feel too overwhelming at the outset.
PBL requires that students reflect and revise their projects – an integral part of the learning process. Similarly, I could plan for scheduled reflection points to reassess how I am doing and the feasibility of my plan. This planned review process would make it less likely that I would undergo the ‘New Year’s Eve Resolution Phenomena’ in which 92% of resolution makers fail to follow through with their plan. I submit that if people were more practiced at managing a project in school and applied those skills to their own life, they would enjoy a much higher rate of success for the personal goals they find important.
In addition to setting personal milestones throughout the project, it would be helpful to find friends, family members, or other similarly committed people to assist in giving feedback on how the project is progressing. Not only would their experience and perspectives provide valuable insight, but knowing that you were planning on sharing your progress with others at certain scheduled time would serve as a substantial motivating factor. In the specific example I have chosen, I can imagine that there are other community member, easily identified, who would have a similar desire to lessen their environmental footprint and perhaps would join me on this project
Finally, I might plan to celebration at the end of the event that would serve as both a reward for a job well done and also make my work public (with family and friends), thus providing greater accountability.
I look forward to applying this process to my ‘life projects’ to help me become more successful at my personal goals that I am truly invested in. No need for an “A” grade; the finished product is reward enough.