Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, and Empathy: The Value of Project-Based Learning

STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—are often viewed as the most important components of a young person’s education. Students are almost exclusively encouraged to pursue STEM fields (medicine, engineering, actuary, research, programming) to ensure future career success. The truth is, students need more than technical skills to be ready to face the challenges of tomorrow. 

Now, that’s not to say that STEM skills are invaluable or even overvalued. They are critical for navigating our tech-oriented world, but recent National Association of Colleges and Employers surveys and Google’s Project Aristotle found that strong communication, collaboration, and creative, critical thinking skills are as important for long-term success.

The Skills that Matter

So, how do we provide an education that balances both the “hard” and “soft” skills our students need for the real world? 

Project-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered, participatory approach to instruction that promotes skill development and knowledge acquisition through iterative projects addressing real-world challenges. PBL is learning by doing, which encourages students to engage with complex problems with creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, empathy, and content knowledge. 

Importantly, in a project-based approach, the why behind learning is shifted. Gone are the days of teaching memorization skills and arithmetic because you won’t always have a calculator or dictionary at your disposal, now we must prepare our students by not only guiding the acquisition of knowledge but also providing them with opportunities to apply what they have learned, in context of the world around them. 

Relevance is Key

At GCE Lab School, project-based learning is embedded in our curriculum. Our courses are grounded in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, no project is isolated, each imagines a global challenge. Because the topics are significant and students are invited to incorporate their lived experience and skills, there is authenticity and meaningfulness in each project. Classes and projects are learner-driven, that is students get to decide for themselves what is important or how they want to approach the topic which promotes enthusiasm and personal investment in the project outcome. Learning isn’t just a task to be completed for a grade, but a sustained, active engagement leading to the development of lifelong learning skills. 

Accommodating and Responsive

Further, GCE’s PBL approach accommodates diverse learning styles. Content knowledge is taught using a variety of techniques, from case studies and role-playing to visualization and backward design. Further, projects are inherently multi-modal. Students build, design, draw, write, present, argue, chart, and craft to demonstrate their mastery of the topics and skills in question. In this way,  PBL promotes deep learning and student achievement.   

In April of 2021, the George Lucas Educational Foundation reported on a growing body of research that demonstrates the positive impact of project-based learning in schools across grades, academic disciplines, and student demographics. Several studies suggest that improved student engagement and content retention brought forth by PBL also leads to increases in student sense of belonging and decreases in absenteeism and student conflict. Simply put, PBL helps students thrive.

Students study algebra and chemistry in the Water class.

Sarah Brock

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