PBL for 21st Century Success: A book review from the field

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Deborah R. Esparza specializes in advancing PBL within ELL classrooms and the assessment of educational programs that promote 21st Century Skills and Deeper Learning outcomes. She is Vice President of the Illinois Consortium for 21st Century Schools.


PBL for 21st Century Success: A book review from the field  

As a student, parent, public school district educator and administrator of over 20 years, I have witnessed a variety of pedagogical approaches. Traditional lecture heavy and workbook saturated instructional models have been used for decades. These approaches are no longer effective and are outdated in our current digital global society.  

With the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), student achievement inequities surfaced, accentuated by a heavy push on teachers to use obsolete instructional approaches for underachieving populations. This, I believe, mainly resulted the lowering of the bar for students

In contrast today, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are requiring higher-order instructional approaches. The refinement of Project-Based Learning (PBL) as a key instructional model presents teachers with a powerful alternative for the engagement of all students. Although projects are not a new tool, their recasting as a model of learning makes PBL especially appropriate for these times.   Unlike our well-used project approaches familiar in many classrooms for many years, PBL today takes on a whole new set of criteria and required elements that lead to successful implementation.

PBL for 21st Century Success (Lamar and Boss, 2013), the third in a practical series of how-to books from the well-versed Buck Institute for Education, offers critically necessary guidance, ideas, and resources for planning, managing, and delivering high quality teaching and learning with an emphasis on 21st Century skills. This book, built on the Institute’s extensive and deep experience preparing teachers to adopt PBL, is a practical hands-on guide. It is appropriate for all 21st Century educators, students, parents, and school community members who strive to provide high quality instructional delivery necessary to keep American schools at the forefront of innovation, creativity, critical thinking, and global competitiveness.

The book is not mere theory.  It builds on the Institute’s and the authors’ experiences bringing PBL to those teachers who are ready to shift from the old models of instruction, but asking for “how-to” help. Thus, the book updates the best of what the authors presented in their prior books on this topic and adds a framework for success. The books strongest quality is a focus on four elements that I think transform the benefits of projects into the richer and more rigorous Project-Based Learning model for high quality instruction.

1. Engagement

Today, more than ever, students have a variety of stimuli that capture their attention. Teachers are competing with social media, targeted marketing advertisements that surround children’s daily lives, and a rapidly changing world of peers different from themselves.  All of these have created a cognitive dissonance from the norms other generations have had to assimilate. And this generation must do so at a tremendously faster pace. 

This book addresses the need to have educators acknowledge this rapidly diverse, distracting and high tech world and optimize these realities into engaging learning opportunities within our American classrooms. The authors do not recommend that teachers adopt superficial attention getting tools such as hand claps, clickers, or extrinsic rewards such as increased time on a computer. Instead, Boss and Lamar make clear the imperative that we stay abreast of what matters in students’ lives today; to fully recognize the value of student interest-based inquiry instruction as a major means to engage students’ minds in answering authentic questions that matter to them.        

2. Effective Instruction

Are students being taught how to learn in American classrooms? If so, how do we know?  Perhaps no other question is more pertinent and difficult to answer.  As a nation, the evidence speaks to how we are falling behind in classrooms that cling to obsolete methods. In the meantime, other countries have adopted deeper learning approaches designed to create thinkers, problem solvers, and socially responsible citizens who are purposefully conscious of positive character traits, emotional intelligence, multi-cultural awareness, and keen global awareness.

 PBL for 21st Century Success integrates PBL into the need for proactive PBL professional learning communities that can provide a roadmap to 21st Century success by relying on school self-assessment through a three-fold approach: design, develop, and determine. This approach means to drive instruction toward a 21st Century transformation and a new understanding of effective instruction. The book suggests that proactive PBL educational communities’ highest priority will be to develop and validate assessments to formatively and summatively examine longitudinal student progress. These assessments will answer the “how do we know?” questions about the effectiveness of instruction and provide new roadmaps to success for all students.

3. Culturally Relevant Instruction

Unlike any other era in American education, schools are experiencing a tremendous influx of increasingly diverse populations.  Schools are responding with several distinct models of language development.  PBL for 21st Century Success offers a variety of strategies to address the best possible opportunities for English Language Learner (ELL) students to grow academically and linguistically in a natural and non-threatening setting.  The chapter on communication in this book offers invaluable insight for ELL educators to utilize cooperative and collaborative grouping, as well as, conscious classroom designs conducive to language acquisition. In addition, this chapter emphasizes the importance of purposeful communication beyond students’ academic life and promotes communication as a life-long skill. Further, PBL for 21st Century Success offers educators of ELL and native speakers the skills necessary for students to actively engage, design, and craft classroom environments that prepare them to be successful for college and career readiness expectations.                  

4. Deeper Learning Outcomes

With the amount of information available in our digital age, content teaching alone is no longer effective.  Educators need to prepare students to take ownership of their learning experiences, guide them through metacognitive inquiry, develop valid and reliable research processes, and nurture students’ ability to navigate information sources that are a natural part of their generation.  This paradigm shift will require highly reflective and collaborative discussions at all school levels. Curriculum, lesson plans, use of time and space, and assessments all need to be examined to design deeper learning outcomes which create lifelong learners, stimulate reflection, and motivate further inquiry. They also need to add the explicit teaching and assessment of the 21st Century skills, most notably critical thinking.  This is only possible if educators have a clear understanding of their ultimate classroom objectives and recognize the calls for critical thinking that are inherent in the standards and most readily accomplished in the PBL approach.   PBL for 21st Century Success offers a well-defined roadmap for effective transformative instructional design and delivery that engages students in a continuous cycle of learning, empowerment, and leadership, a cycle that blends instruction of the content of curriculum with the processes of thinking, problem solving, collaborating, and communicating.               

Summary and Takeaways

In the past two decades, the world has changed exponentially.  We are now living in a flat world where our digital interconnectedness has given us invaluable opportunities to learn in multiple and creative settings, understand world-wide complexities, and ultimately work as a global society. Our American school systems need to be responsive and proactive to the demands placed on its rapidly changing consumers. What works best to do this? I believe the answer is PBL.

PBL emulates the expectations of successful 21st Century workplace environments and empowers students with the skills and strategies for success beyond their academic lives.  This valuable resource offers a clear path to successful implementation of PBL with an authentic pulse on the changing schools of America. Most importantly, this book  provides a three-step pathway of design, development, and determination to address the four crucial elements of engagement, effective instruction, cultural relevance, and deeper learning outcomes, all accompanied with a multitude of practical to make PBL work for all students in ways other approaches, notably obsolete hangovers from past decades, cannot. 


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