Monday, January 31, 2011

21st Century Education and PBL


As many of you know, I served as President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills from 2002-2010.  What you may not know is I have taken on two new roles recently:
  • I now serve as the CEO of EdLeader21, a new national professional learning community for superintendents and district leaders committed to 21st century education.
  •  I have recently been elected to the board of the Buck Institute for Education, for which I am quite honored, as I consider it the preeminent organization currently promoting Project Based Learning (PBL).
These two recent developments have caused me to reflect even further on the synergies between 21st century education and Project Based Learning.

In my view, 21st century education and Project Based Learning have the potential to create ever-increasing support for one another.

21st century education is a vision for how we alter 50-year old education objectives to meet the needs of modern life, citizenship and work.  In most places where it is being pursued at its core, 21st century education has been about focusing attention on students ability to incorporate the 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity) into their arsenal of knowledge and skills.  The focus on 21st century education has also placed a heavy emphasis on how we should teach and assess these 4Cs.

This vision has enabled an invigorated dialogue between educators, students, parents, and communities about what should be the “outcomes” of education in 21st century society.  This dialogue is healthy and important and can enable a fresh discourse on what goals and aspirations educators, parents, and students should be pursuing in an educational context.

In my visits to schools and districts throughout the country where these community dialogues have occurred, I have been encouraged by the consensus that exists around the need to update our goals for education.  Parents intuitively understand how profoundly society has changed over the past 50 years and how much the education enterprise needs to be refreshed and updated.  In this context the “Framework for 21st Century Learning” ( has been a very useful and productive tool for education stakeholders to use in anchoring these dialogues.

While “vision” and “strategic planning” conversations are very useful, inevitably people turn to the topic of “how do we accomplish this vision?  If we want our children to be better critical thinkers, better problem solvers, better communicators, better collaborators and more creative, what do our classrooms need to look like?”

I have witnessed many classrooms where this work is being done. A common denominator in many classrooms is the effective use of PBL strategies.

One of my favorite examples is a middle school in Indiana where 5th and 6th graders were asked to develop a plan for an environmental park on an acre of land adjacent to the school.

Students were asked to:
  • Develop plans for exhibits;
  • Determine the best proposals;
  • Integrate them into a concept for the entire park;
  • Petition the city government to approve the park;
  • Advocate with city leaders for their plan;
  • See the plan through the approval process; and,
  • Oversee the actual building of the park.
Imagine the incredible skill sets honed by these 5th and 6th graders.  Think about the critical thinking skills, collaborative skills, written and oral communication skills, science knowledge and civic knowledge skills that went into this project.

In order to support projects like this one, the materials of the Buck Institute for Education have been extremely helpful.  Educators and parents need to know what 21st century teaching should look like and the effective use of PBL is one of the most effective strategies we have for increasing the pedagogy and assessment of the 4Cs.  I am particularly fond of BIE’s new “Starter Kit” for Project Based Learning.

If I had to summarize my perspective in two sentences it would be these:
  • 21st century education and the 4Cs are the most powerful ways to move a dialogue forward to create a consensus vision around the future of education in your school or district.
  • PBL is one of the most effective strategies we have today that can actually help us teach and assess the 4Cs in today’s classrooms.
As you go forward thinking about your school or district, let me suggest two things to consider:
  • Take a look at and consider joining our new professional learning community of superintendents and district leaders who are pursuing 21st century education as a vision for their schools and districts.  Learn from others who are using the 4Cs as a construct to move their schools and districts forward.
  • Embrace the concepts of PBL as an important way of implementing your 21st century education vision.  Utilize the materials of the Buck Institute for Education to help your educators in their professional development around PBL.  These materials are the nuts and bolts you need for your educators to pursue PBL as an effective education strategy.

21st century education and Project Based Learning is not the same thing.  One is a large framework and vision, the other is a very effective implementation.  Working together, however, 21st century education and PBL can be a powerful team for you to use in your school or district to move both consensus building and practical implementation of 21st century education forward.

CEO of EdLeader21 & BIE Board Member

1 comment:

  1. Ken,
    The connection to PBL is very strong as you say. If you are at TCEA, come by one of my presentations to see our context (and projects) in this area.
    David Thornburg