Design 21st Century Learners with Project-Based Learning
By Kim Rayl, Director of Teaching and Learning American International School of Lagos
Muhammad Ali, arguably amongst the greatest boxers of all time, understood the intersection of knowledge, skill, and mindset to his success; “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses- behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”
Effective educators, too, understand that developing life skills and dispositions, such as grit, creativity, and collaboration, is more critical to our 21st Century learners’ success than the myopic focus on the low-level knowledge of the past.
Yet, external pressure from stakeholders nervous about GPAs and university acceptance rates can stymie this shift in curricular and instructional priority away from content-focused to a more balanced and relevant program, which includes the development of non-cognitive skills and dispositions. What steps can teachers, who want to broaden the light in which their students dance, take?
At the American International School of Lagos, we leverage the one-two punch of Project-Based Learning to plan, teach, and assess the Global Competencies that matter most. Our goal? To create a curricular and instructional design that achieves the Simultaneous Outcomes of deep content knowledge, coupled with non-cognitive skills and dispositional development.
1. Identify Your Global Competencies
The first step is to identify the competencies you believe matter most to student success. There are a slew of ready-made frameworks that educators can look to for inspiration. The key is finding, or building, a set of global competencies that resonate with your educational philosophy and that you commit to planning for, teaching to, and assessing evidence of.
At AISL, our process was school-wide, collaborative, and iterative. We started by asking, “What are the dispositions and skills of an ideal graduate?”
We quickly broadened our thinking to include all learners from Preschool through Grade 12, cognizant of the approximately twenty-five percent turnover rate in our highly mobile, international student body. We also strove to keep our competencies transdisciplinary in nature with the goal of transferability across subject areas.
An initially exhaustive list was gradually refined to five broad categories through a multi-stage process of discussion, reflection and feedback. Worded as actions, the competencies for 21st Century learners that all AISL teachers plan, teach, and assess are:
- Intrinsically motivated and collaborative team member
- Creative problem solver and critical thinker
- Effective communicator
- Critical consumer and producer of information and technology
- Globally, culturally, and socially empathetic
Project-based learning (PBL) aspires to see students increase engagement and accomplish grade-level learning outcomes. Achieving this aim requires careful curricular planning by teachers before embarking on a PBL journey in the classroom.
2. Determine Your Simultaneous Outcomes
Deliberately skill- and disposition-based, with transdisciplinary application and transfer across the artificial boundaries of content areas – school and life – our ultimate measure of global competence is self-directed learners. Capacity must be built gradually through explicit instruction and practice in the thinking skills and Habits of Mind learners need to become self-managing, self-monitoring and self-modifying.
While the adoption of a school-wide thinking routine framework is a work in progress, many teachers employ Visible Thinking Routines from Harvard’s Project Zero and all units planned in reference Bloom’s cognitive levels.
The Habits of Mind is our preferred dispositional model through middle school; once students enter Grades 9 and 10, they are crosswalked to the IB Learner Profile in preparation for a rigorous Diploma Program that demands learners be largely self-directed. Instruction and practice in the Habits of Mind and IB Learner Profile occur through a weekly Advisory Program.
A report-card redesign scheduled for the 2019 school year will include Habits of Mind and the IB Learner Profile, along with the Global Competencies, all of which are included in 3-way Goal-Setting and Student Led Conferences. Inclusion of non-cognitive skills and dispositions on official reporting tools elevates and communicates their value to the broader school community.
3. Design Your Curriculum with Global Competencies at the Center
The key to managing simultaneous outcomes and ‘fitting it all in’ on a day-to-day basis is achieved through Project-Based Learning. PBL is our preferred unit design and instructional tool because it puts students squarely in the center of the ring while teachers coach and support from the sidelines. Through a design cycle that emphasizes process, quality, authenticity, adult connections, and reflection, students employ thinking skills and the Habits of Mind they need to be successful self-directed learners.
When students inevitably end up against the ropes, and they will, mini-lessons that target critical soft skills such as navigating group dynamics and time management, along with just-in-time content lessons and resources, help students uncover and learn critical content knowledge as they simultaneously build competency in other areas.
“Don’t count the days, make the days count.” – Muhammad Ali
Educational research is clear: students benefit from deep, meaningful learning experiences grounded in the content knowledge, thinking skills, and dispositional attributes critical to success in school now and in preparation for their future work and personal lives.
But the pressure to cover the standards and demonstrate evidence of content mastery to external stakeholders can take center ring; after all, we only have 180 days in the average school year. Project-Based Learning, with its emphasis on achieving simultaneous outcomes, is an effective strategy to make those days count.
Kim Rayl is the Director of Teaching and Learning at the American International School of Lagos, Nigeria and a member of the Association of International Schools in Africa (AISA) Professional Learning Design Team. A former middle school English and social studies teacher, Kim also has experience teaching PYP and has worked as a behavioral therapist using ABA therapy for children on the autism spectrum. Kim has a Masters of Teaching, a Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction, and a K-12 Administrator’s License.
She has taught in public schools in the United States and at international schools around the world including Egypt, Mongolia, Bolivia, Indonesia and most recently, Nigeria. Kim is passionate about collaboratively designing and building teaching, learning and feedback systems that support school improvement initiatives.