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21st Century Learning

Project Based learning (PBL) actively engages students.  They are inspired and highly-motivated by their projects, and have fun through the process. The high level of engagement in PBL improves learning: students have a better understanding of content and retain what they have learned longer than with traditional teaching methods.


During a project, students work collaboratively while building real-world skills. Students learn to communicate effectively, take initiative, and manage their own responsibilities and deadlines. They develop critical thinking and problem solving skills that meet the challenge of the Common Core standards and also set them up for a lifetime of success.

Students at The Academies experience three fully-developed, interdisciplinary projects per school year (one per trimester). Teachers are trained using the pblCORE model of Project Based Learning, developed by Tulare County Office of Education and based upon the Buck Institute for Education’s original PBL concept. Project Based Learning is a structured process designed to support educators in developing and delivering effective instruction that is focused on building transferable skills that prepare students for college, career, and life.


The pblCORE process is an integrated approach for designing, implementing, assessing, and managing Project Based Learning. All projects include the ten essential characteristics of PBL:

1. Real-World Connection: consideration is given for projects to inform/connect to students’ lives


2. Critical Knowledge: common core standards-based objectives are made meaningful to the students


3. 21st Century Skills: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, (the 4 C’s) as well as real world problem-solving


4. Purposeful Assessment: formative assessment is built into the process, can include self- and/or peer- assessment, goal-setting and progress-tracking


5. Project Deliverables: learning products have applicability and the student’s learning and thinking is embedded in the process of their creation


6. Authentic Audience: significantly improves student motivation to perform to the best of their ability, makes work authentic, helps our school engage the larger community


7. Essential Question: an open-ended and motivating question prompts students to begin with the big idea or complex/situated concepts. The acquisition of the details of the learning or the discrete skills needed to meet learning objectives becomes purposeful as a means to resolve the Essential Question


8. Need to Know: students see the need to gain knowledge in order to answer the driving question, and identify their own questions/gaps in knowledge


9. Inquiry Process: includes a guided research process with multiple and varied resources, requires higher level thinking


10. Personalized Learning: student decision-making or “voice and choice” is provided for within process or product


Additionally, Project Based Learning is widely recognized as responsive to the needs of the 21st century learner. Its design and essential components are informed by the Common Core State Standards (“CCSS”), 21st Century Skills (The Four C’s), Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, and Daggett’s Three R’s (Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships).


The process of how a well-developed PBL unit unfolds includes having students identify their own "need to knows"-- their academic voids, deficiencies, or the questions that would need to be answered in order to achieve the challenge or resolve the driving question. Our PBL units are designed around common core content standards and teachers employ “backwards design” principles to create projects based on several standards from multiple disciplines (Wiggins and McTighe, 2006). This allows students to demonstrate mastery of standards in context as a part of this powerful and interconnected learning process. Teachers will embed formative assessment and provide the scaffolds for students to demonstrate understanding at high levels that are meaningful to the learner. Teachers strive to meet the student’s current skill level and push it a step further, keeping the learning experience within their “zone of proximal development” (Vgotsky, 1978). The required PBL design element of personalized learning ("voice and choice") provides avenues to respond to each child's individual interest or curiosity as it relates to content standards/learning objectives. The culminating event for the unit always involves a public audience, increasing the rigor and relevance of the learning experience and providing multiple opportunities to connect our school with the larger community.


The benefits to PBL are many and varied. These projects will be academically rigorous, inspiring, and highly motivating for students. Projects facilitate the development of self-regulating habits, effective time management, and study skills. Projects allow for individualized pacing and acceleration, and the joy of following one’s own questions to the satisfaction of their answers. They promote pride in work, creativity, and critical thinking. Project-based learning will not only encourage meaning-making, but it will also prepare students for the rapidly-changing world they will experience after their time at The Academies by giving them the chance to consider and understand the ethical issues associated with the curriculum, and develop a greater conceptual sense for the context of the content. PBL foster the necessary critical thinking skills for SVA students to navigate the complexity of our world’s challenges beyond their years at our school. It requires learners to make connections and situate ideas, which requires constant recall, reuse, transfer, and contextualization, and application of information. These tasks are brain-compatible and likely to yield not only better retention, but also higher-level thinking skills. Projects connect across content areas and enable more meaningful learning, thus PBL is a foundational part of SVA’s instructional design.


When shared at their conclusion, project presentations afford individuals valuable public-speaking opportunities, while the community of learners benefits from the variety and range in their classmates’ work. PBL will engage learners in ways that promote long-term retention of information and that motivate students to want to learn and engage in provided experiences.


Teachers find PBL to be an engaging, rewarding, and fun experience. Projects allow teachers to work closely with active, engaged students doing high-quality, meaningful work. Teachers have the opportunity to be creative with designing and planning projects and to collaborate with peers in the design and implementation process.


Overall, teachers find PBL to be an invigorating experience that fuels their love for teaching and learning. Transitioning to this student-centered instructional practice, however, can be a bit uncomfortable for teachers and parents who were not educated themselves in this manner.  Since PBL empowers students, it requires teachers and parents to trust in their students. A great deal of scaffolding and support is embedded in a project design, as well as assessment, however the degree of student “voice and choice” is greater within a PBL unit than traditional teaching environments. 


To support our staff’s effective implementation of this exciting instructional practice, SVA employs a PBL Coach who works with teachers to maximize student learning by strengthening the design and structure of The Academies projects.


Enter a PBL classroom and you will see students doing research online, students asking questions, or students working in different areas of the room alone or in groups. You’ll hear many academic conversations occurring simultaneously, and witness a high level of engagement in a student-centered environment. The academic enthusiasm in the classroom is palpable.  While nontraditional, the classroom is organized and resource-rich, and students are working within a culture of independence, inquiry, trust, respect, and teamwork.

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