This post was adapted from a piece written by Ingrid Wong, School Designer at NYC Outward Bound Schools.
Over the past two academic years, New York City has battled the pandemic on multiple fronts, with schools serving as a key indicator of the city’s ability to adequately care for its children and families in an unprecedented crisis. Creating the structures and systems needed to safely reopen schools has been more than just a technical undertaking — it’s been driven by a call for equity.
At NYC Outward Bound Schools, we wondered — how can this chance to rebuild school as we know it help us address exacerbated learning gaps that already exist, while also creating space for healing and community?
In response to this guiding question, our educators have embraced project-based learning (PBL) as a solution because it makes possible the integration of healing-centered (Ginwright, 2018), antiracist instruction (Simmons, 2019) and is flexible enough for teachers to make decisions about which grade-level standards should be prioritized for essential learning.
Here are five ways that PBL will make learning more engaging and equitable as we transition from remote and blended learning back into the classroom.
1. PBL centers student voices and ideas.
During the pandemic, at a time when combatting helplessness and despair was paramount, PBL provided pathways for student empowerment. The same must be true as we return to in-person learning and place an emphasis on healing and moving forward together.
Because of its interdisciplinary nature, PBL offers multiple entry points and opportunities for students to engage with curriculum and make relevant connections to their interests and to the real world. Allowing students to collaborate, ideate and create together puts the ball in their court, and helps students expand their critical thinking.
2. PBL provides opportunities for teachers to feel empowered, too.
With PBL, teachers have the agency to draw from their passions when designing curriculum. Many teachers appreciate the opportunity to be creative and make decisions; and for those less comfortable with this role, collaboration reduces the intimidation factor of creating original units. Planning project-based curriculum in teams is an opportunity for staff to build relationships, share knowledge, test tools and brainstorm solutions.
To best support daily instruction and long-term planning, leaders must demonstrate curiosity and listen to staff members’ thoughts and concerns. Like students, staff will be better prepared to engage in the cognitively demanding work of PBL planning if they feel seen and heard.
3. PBL helps make intentions for antiracist curriculum a reality.
Whether virtual or in-person, PBL requires high-quality planning — in particular, the need for clear objectives and relevant content. To intentionally plan an antiracist curriculum, educators must think critically about whether their content:
- is culturally relevant to all students
- promotes equity
- mirrors the work/product of professionals in some way
If done correctly, PBL will include multiple opportunities for students to grapple with and challenge systems of inequity and propose solutions for change. The events of the past two years have demonstrated that young people are incredible leaders and can transform the conversation in creative and persuasive ways. Assessments of their learning must also draw from and build upon those abilities.
For schools that have an existing foundation for PBL, curriculum development may not require recreating entirely new units of study, but instead, thoughtful revision in response to new opportunities created by blended learning, as well as attention to the extent to which a curriculum is truly culturally responsive.
4. PBL gives students an authentic learning experience that really matters.
When student research, inquiry and work is grounded in reality and helps provide real solutions to current issues, there’s a shared understanding that the work matters. Often, PBL units involve field work and connect students with change-makers in the community, setting in motion a desire to do more about the issues they’ve explored.
During a presentation of learning (POL), or the culminating event of a PBL unit, students apply their learning rather than just restate their work — particularly when presentations are grounded in service, social activism or advocacy. Sometimes, they are able to use their final products and presentations to instigate real change.
In addition to having peers, teachers, and family attend a POL, consider inviting experts who may have helped students throughout the unit and are invested in the topic at hand. Lean on them to offer feedback or make connections between the students’ ideas and their professional work. It’s also important that students hear their peers’ perspectives, and receive both praise and opportunities for growth, offering a truly engaging experience.
5. PBL is well-aligned with continuous improvement practices.
In education, continuous improvement is an incremental approach to change. The process involves a never-ending series of small changes to structures, practices, language, and behaviors. Both continuous improvement and PBL are built on the idea of a growth mindset — that there’s always something to learn and improve upon.
Although often articulated and led by leadership, planning for PBL is a team endeavor. Teachers should be involved in naming desired outcomes for PBL and how the strategy will help reach all students, including those challenged by low attendance or engagement this past year.
In a more granular sense, PBL should live in daily instruction, with the project being the purpose that drives daily instruction. Leaders can organize regular walkthroughs of classes to understand how students are experiencing the curriculum, as well as teachers’ common strengths and needs. This data can inform further leadership decisions, coaching and professional development to ensure that PBL implementation has its intended impact and is continually improved upon.