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Teaching the Skills Kids Need – Using PBL*


JoAnn Groh

Eighth grader Maya peered through the window into the chaos that was 6th graders pulling together their Space & Scale Exhibition and shuddered.

“I remember doing that when I was a 6th grader and not having a clue about what I was doing.  I wasted so much time looking up information that was irrelevant.  I didn’t know how to set intermediate goals for myself and I was totally thrown off by having to work with other students.”

I asked Maya if that still were the case for her and she bragged about how skilled she had become at doing this work, knowing exactly how to attack a problem/question and apportion her time.

Without using the term, Maya has become practiced at “project management” and she is fine tuning most of the skills identified by the World Economic Forum as the top skills needed for employment in 2020. Here is their list:

  • Complex Problem Solving
  • Critical Thinking
  • Creativity
  • People Management
  • Coordinating with Others
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Judgment and Decision Making
  • Service Orientation
  • Negotiation
  • Cognitive Flexibility

See ‘The 10 Skills You Need to Thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ – World Economic Forum.  Also see ‘Teaching a Future President: What If We Equipped Every Student With the Tools to Solve the World’s Most Challenging Problems’ – Usable Knowledge.

I have blogged in the past about how essential it is for students who are furthest from opportunity and students who have traditionally struggled in school to be given access to powerful “Gold-Standard” PBL.  Project-based learning definitely benefits all students.  But I write this blog thinking about Maya, a student who came to us with a strong academic background and who would likely have done well at any school under any pedagogy.  For Maya, however, growing in the skills identified by the World Economic Forum, particularly the ones involving other students, was a stretch – particularly because her native intelligence and strong academic habits made her impatient with many of her peers.


Eighth grader Maya

These areas of growth that I have seen Maya develop in are as important (if not more so) than traditional academic knowledge.  She is now also excelling in areas such as leadership, communication, perseverance and compassion.  Over her time with us, Maya has learned to advocate for herself and others using language and tone that is respectful and effective.  Now when she works with her peers she is able to negotiate the allocation of tasks – looking for a fair distribution of work and building on each team member’s strength.  She is willing to look beyond peers’ apparent deficits and instead focuses on eliciting multiple perspectives.  She knows that honoring each person’s unique contributions will not only build buy-in but will also make whatever end product they are working on, better in the long run.


Maya (on the far left)

Had Maya gone to a school that used only traditional pedagogy – lecture, note taking, studying, testing (primarily done individually) – she would not have had the opportunity to hone and practice these life skills.  She would undoubtedly have scored well on standardized tests, but her ability to work through obstacles and marshal the collective resources of her peers to effectively complete complex tasks – would not have been a given.

When in life (other than when we are taking a test) do we ever take a test?  But life is full of individual and collaborative tasks and projects (i.e. decorating the kitchen, applying for a grant, putting together a sales pitch, organizing a 50th reunion, hiring a team of subcontractors, writing code for an app, designing a fall fashion collection, training for a marathon, etc.).  Twenty-first century life is full of complex tasks and projects – at work, at play, at life – it’s all projects!  And the skills that we teach, assess, and coach now will transfer.

Maya is going to blow us all away.  Just you wait!


* Note: This blog has been re-posted at the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) website on 11/29/16 under the title “Beyond Test Scores: Building Project Management Skills with PBL.”

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