Project-Based Learning: How does it build 21 Century Skills?

The term “Project-Based Learning (PBL)” has frequently appeared in educational media and news reports in recent years. Even the school of your kid may have also applied this learning method in some classes. What exactly is PBL? Why is it being widely promoted? FCA was honored to invite Mr. Darin Schmidt, President of Shenzhen Shenmei International School (ASIS), to become the guest speaker in our webinar to introduce Project-Based Learning, from which we can explore more possibilities for child education.


What is Project-Based Learning?

“Project-based learning is where you take an educational goal, a learning objective and you teach that in a planning and design a problem and to decide a solution. The kids are making decisions about their solution, and then they are creating artifact — it could be a model or a presentation — to demonstrate their results,” said Mr. Darin.

According to Buck Institue for Education, a Project Based Learning Authority in the U.S., Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students work on a project over an extended period of time – from a week up to a semester – that engages them in solving a real-world problem or challenge. In PBL they demonstrate their knowledge and skills by developing a public product or presentation for a real audience.

As a result, students develop deep content knowledge as well as the “21Century Skills*” including critical thinking, creativity, problem solving and communication skills. These skills are the key to success for children in the workplace, personal and social life in the future.

* The term “21 Century Skills” originates from the U.S. It refers to a set of abilities that students need to develop in order to succeed in the information age. 21st Century skills include: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, Information literacy, media literacy, technology literacy, flexibility, leadership, initiative, productivity and social skills.

Image source: BIE (Buck Institute for Education)


7 Essential Elements of Project-Based Learning

So how can we effectively implement Project-Based Learning? What are the criteria for a successful PBL? For this question, Mr. Darin mentioned several basic elements of Project Based Learning:

      1. Challenging problem or question

A good start is half the battle. For Project-Based Learning, a good question can often stimulate one’s creativity and enthusiasm to learn. Mr.Darin pointed out that in the classrooms of Shenzhen American International School(ASIS), Science and Sociology courses are often carried out in form of projects. Teachers will first design for students an open-ended question which is with moderate difficulty and based on the reality, like “If you are the governor, how would you revitalize historic buildings in the city except turning the heritage into a shopping mall?” or “Which renewable energy you think is the best for our city to develop?” Then students have to find a solution with imagination. Their critical thinking and creativity will be trained through group discussions or brainstorming. Of course, the difficulty setting of the question will be in line with the students’ learning level. For example, the content for form 5 students not suitable for a form 3 classroom.

      1. Sustained inquiry

In a typical class in school, the teacher usually plays an active role to teach the knowledge from textbooks. But in the Project Based Learning, students become questioners and creators who actively discuss and research about the topic. With the spirit of exploration, learning effectiveness can be strengthened.

      1. Authenticity

Instead of gaining knowledge from a textbook, Project Based Learning encourages students to look into real life and find solutions to real-world problems. The word “real” mentioned here consists of  three aspects:

a) Real Context

Teachers will introduce real-life scenarios and allow students to conduct research around the topics, such as “How to make a development plan for a charity?”

b) Real Project Flow

To solve real-life problems, students also have to use the tools and skills that one normally uses in real life. For example, they may use computers to analyze data or learn multimedia software to create promotional videos. No matter they solve the problems in which way, they will benefit from the practice.

c) Real Influence

When students have racked their brains for a real-world problem and come up with their own plans, those results and solutions may actually be submitted to relevant institutions, such that they can bring new inspiration and influence to the society. Therefore, PBL can make students feel a sense of accomplishment, and let them realize that it’s a great thing to help others!

      1. Student voice & Choices

In Project Based Learning, children’s ideas and creativity are fully respected, at the same time they are also tolerated for the mistakes made during the project. Teachers play the role of mentor in the classroom, guiding the children to solve problems from different angles. Furthermore, the needs and ideas of different children are also respected and supported. For example, some introverted students have obstacles in cooperating with others, so the teachers will also help them to develop personalized learning programs, such as letting them complete a task independently.

      1. Reflections on Reflection

Simply completing a project is not the ultimate goal of Project Based Learning. Teachers hope that students will reflect on their own after finishing the work, so the subsequent self-reflection session become very important. The reflection session encourages students to recall their thinking patterns and the corresponding outcomes during the project, in order to discover their room of improvement. This ability is called “Metacognition”.

      1. Critique Revision

Asking for advice can make one progress. In the result demostration session of the project, students have chances to get advice from others and learn how can they do better. Mr.Darin added that in their school, parents with different occupations also invited to attend the product exhibition of their students, such that they can point out their room of improvement from a professional perspective. He believes that children can learn a lot more with such interaction.

      1. Public Product

A public product is a student’s final presentation of his/her results. Mr.Darin pointed out that an opportunity for students to present and communicate with others in public is very important since it can greatly enhance their confidence and communication skills. Have you ever felt anxious and stressed before a public speech? Mr.Darin told us that the feeling of anxiety can actually bring positive effects to students. It makes them take their work seriously as no one wants to show imperfect work in front of their classmates. Therefore, to a certain extent, a public display of results encourages students to improve their work quality.


Project-Based Learning VS. Traditional Learning Method

Mr. Darin used an interesting metaphor to describe the difference between PBL and traditional learning method: traditional learning is like classical music, while Project-Based Learning is jazz. Compared to classical music, the relaxing and cheerful jazz music is more creative and flexible. This highlights several advantages of Project-Based Learning:

      • Children acquire more 21 Century Skills with PBL, while it’s hard to achieve the same by using traditional teaching method.
      • There is never one right answer in PBL, so it encourages students to open their minds and actively innovate.
      • Students will deepen their knowledge of the subject through “Learning from Doing”.
      • PBL changes the relationship between teachers and students. The teacher is no longer the leader who gives orders but becomes an assistant who let students take the initiative to complete the tasks.


Some Misunderstandings about Project Based Learning

1. Does PBL focus too much on practical skills and ignore academic knowledge?

No,it won’t. An excellent PBL course focuses on both academic and skill. Before the start of the project, teachers usually teach the basic knowledge with the textbook in the first place. As without solid basic knowledge, students may not have the ability to carry out project learning. Only when the foundation is laid, they can think better about the problem and use what they have learned to solve it.

2. Can PBL be applied to any class?

PBL may not be suitable for some traditional subjects, Mathematics is an example — it’s hard for teachers to design good open-ended questions when students are just at the primary or secondary school level, thus traditional teaching methods are still a good choice. Of course, when it comes to Science, Sociology or STEM-related courses which involves programming, robotics and other topics, PBL can more effectively enhance the children’s learning experience and train up their all-rounded skills and abilities.



Project Based Learning is just one of the many good teaching methods we can take. Regardless of which method we choose, as parents or teachers, we should all place “people-oriented” as the ultimate goal of education. Instead of letting children adapt to the education system, there exist various flexible ways to meet the different needs of children.

People-oriented means to respect the diversity of children by helping them create a relaxing learning environment. Parents also need be open-minded to the mistakes children made, so that they can be confident to try something new in this ever-changing society.

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