How to create a "Future-proof" PBL unit

In the last decade, educational institutions are grappling with a big, hairy, existential question. What is the purpose of an education? Once students leave that educational institution, what sorts of people should they be? And what should their education allow them to ‘do’? As Lachlan McLean discussed in his article, thinking about these questions can have a significant impact on how teachers view the purpose of their role.

Answering these questions in their entirety are too broad for any article to tackle. However, one common theme of discussions of the purpose of education in recent years has focused on the changing nature of the workplace due to the prevalence of technology and automation. There is a growing recognition that students graduating from secondary and tertiary education armed simply with knowledge is no longer enough to insulate them from the threat of replacement by automation. Instead, what students need more than ever to thrive in the 21stCentury are a set of thinking and ‘soft’ skills that can translate across industries and knowledge areas and which are unlikely to be replaceable any time soon. Project-based learning has been recognised as one of the best instructional methods to help students develop and apply these skills.

But what are these skills exactly? And how should one go about designing a project to draw them out? Read on to learn more!

What skills should we be focusing on?

It’s easy to hear the phrase ‘21st Century Skills’ and feel a small prick of cynicism. Like most buzzwords, it gets overused and over-applied. However, this masks the very real set of skills to which it refers, skills which are becoming critically important for students to navigate a world accelerating at an unprecedented pace.

These skills are enumerated in the Australian General Capabilities curriculum and have been discussed in a previous edition of the eduSTEM Review. They are variously labelled as collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, communication, problem solving, and emotional intelligence. However, these terms are all somewhat abstract and hard to define with precision. What do they mean in the context of a PBL unit? When should students be asked to exhibit these skills? And what should these skills help students to do, both in a PBL unit and in the real world?

Instead, it is easier to think about these skills in the context of the real world. Though the General Capabilities are all crucial skills, they don’t in and of themselves allow people to make an impact in today’s world. Instead, they are the enablers for the below to occur:

  • Creating new value and solutions

  • Reconciling tensions and solving dilemmas

  • Developing personal and collective responsibility

Creating new value and solutions

The world progresses when new ideas and new ways of thinking create new value. Innovation enables us to create accessible solutions to social, environmental, or economic problems, and contributes to the continued rise of living standards and decline of poverty around the world. However, creating value doesn’t just have to relate to a new product or business idea. It might include new ways of thinking or living, new policies, or new cultural memes intended to influence and guide our thoughts and actions.

Reconciling tensions and dilemmas

It feels as if our society is becoming increasingly polarised. As opinions diverge, being able to reconcile different views and smooth tensions between opposing parties is of paramount importance in maintaining societal cohesion and enabling progress to occur. Young people must become adept at understanding and handling tensions, dilemmas and trade-offs – the economy or the environment; individual freedoms or societal cohesion? These decisions may have wide-reaching consequences; students must learn to think in systems and in an integrated way, whilst balancing different ideological standpoints, to reconcile these tensions in favour of the common interest.

Developing personal and collective responsibility

For students to achieve the above, they must be able to think for themselves and work with and through others. They must recognise that nothing occurs in a vacuum and for every idea, decision, and change they seek to make in the world, there are risks and rewards that follow. To take responsibility, students must be able to reflect on and evaluate their thoughts and actions. They must be able to consider the social, moral, and ethical implications of an action and consider how to weight different interests. And, as creating solutions and solving dilemmas is more effective when working with others, students must have the capacity to consider and evaluate their actions when viewed as part of a team.

Choosing a project which is conducive to these skills

As Lachlan McLean discussed, finding a project topic that can get students excited and passionate is the first step. You can find our suggestions on how to go about this here. Once you’ve done this, however, think carefully about the problem you have chosen. Which of these soft skills might it lend itself to? And how could the frame of the project be tweaked to influence one skill over another?

Our suggestion is that each project you create should either take the frame of driving students towards creating new value and solutions, or it should require students to use what they have learned to reconcile tensions and dilemmas. It is generally too difficult to do both in the same project, as each requires a separate set of thinking routines and strategies to support it.

Which approach you choose should depend on which skill you’d like to emphasise. If you have or plan to run multiple PBL units with the same student group, think about how you can sequence the soft skills across each project so that students are exposed to and must demonstrate each one. Alternatively, you might choose to focus on the same skills – like creativity – across multiple projects in the same period; in that case, your projects should revolve around requiring students to create new value and solutions.

It might also depend on the nature of the problem you have chosen. Does everyone agree that it is a problem and that all that is required is a solution? Or is there conjecture about what the problem is, or what the causes are, or whether it is a problem at all? The former might lend itself to the frame of creating new value and solutions, whilst the latter might be better suited to students reconciling tensions and dilemmas.

However, some problems might lend themselves well to both frames, depending on how the project is defined. For example, the problem of climate change could be given to students with the remit of creating a solution for how societies can adapt to a warming world and its attendant consequences; alternatively, students might be asked to investigate what affect potential adaptation measures might have on the economy and whether they believe they are justified. This choice should be made based on the extent which students would need to apply curriculum content to that answer, but also on the skills which we want students to develop in that unit. The former might require greater creative thought, whilst the latter would necessitate more critical thinking.

Making this small shift in how you think about the design of PBL units will help you conceptualise which skills are being developed across a unit and how to frame a unit to lend itself to the use of that skill. In doing so, you create a project which helps students directly use the skill as they would need to in the real world. This is, at its essence, creating future-proof students!

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