Nowadays we live in an ever-changing global world in which global skills have become the essential skills of the workplace. Employers currently seek employees who have a positive attitude to life, who are adaptable, self-motivated and who are continuously motivated to grow and learn. In short, it seems that the global marketplace is looking for life-long learners who have a growth mindset. This being the case, it seems fitting to stop and ask ourselves whether our schools and educational systems are currently preparing our children for this complex and ever-changing reality, or if they are simply perpetuating a bygone 19th century educational model that is no longer capable of meeting our modern-day reality and needs. Sir Ken Robinson defends that:
“We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.” (Robinson, 2010)
It seems that this message is being heard and taken on board, as many educational systems around the world have already begun taking the first steps towards bringing about this kind of radical long-lasting change into their schools and society by implementing UNESCO’s 4 pillars of education or the OECD Pisa-Global Competence framework in their curricula. The OUP ELT expert panel recently defended in the Global skills: Creating Empowered 21st Century Citizens position paper: “Nowadays, teacher’s responsibilities typically cover not only the teaching of specific subjects but also the gradual inclusion of additional skills and competencies.” (2019: p. 10). Thus, we teachers need to implement a 21st century learning framework in our classrooms which introduces a balanced learning approach. An approach that simultaneously promotes and develops the learning of subject specific content along with the 21st century global skills like Critical and Creative thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Intercultural, Citizenship and Digital skills, and finally, Emotional Regulation and Well-being.
Whilst all this makes perfect sense, teachers like you and me often find themselves a little lost when it comes to bridging the gap between theory and practice in our classrooms. Suzie Boss and John Larmer defend that Project Based Learning (PBL)is just the perfect tool to make this shift as:
Through academically rigorous projects, students acquire deep content knowledge while also mastering 21st century success skills: knowing how to think critically, analyse information for reliability, collaborate with diverse colleagues, and solve problems creatively. In the process of engaging with PBL, students learn to ask good questions, be resourceful, manage their time, meet authentic deadlines, and persist through challenges. When well done, PBL fosters self-management and self-directed learning.” (Larmer, 2018, p. 1)
Colleen MacDonell goes a step further and alerts us to the toll that a strictly academic programme can take on Young Learners by mainly focusing on their cognitive development in neglect of other essential components of how learning takes place with young learners, namely, their innate positive dispositions like their constant curiosity and eagerness to learn. She supports the introduction of PBL in the YL classroom as:
…the project approach to teaching helps young children develop many positive habits of mind and behaviour: persistence in the face of a difficult problem, curiosity about new concepts, motivation to learn, cooperativeness, and even humour. … Early childhood education should include a conscious effort on the part of teachers to create learning environments and activities that allow children to practice and experience these desirable behaviours. (MacDonell, 2007, p. 4)
Want to try the PBL approach with your learners? Here are five absolutely essential characteristics that every good YL project should have.
Stem from a student-directed driving question.
A meaningful project should always be born from a discussion between all the project stakeholders (the children, teacher, the school librarian etc.) that inevitably taps into the children’s natural curiosity. The teacher’s role is that of a guide or facilitator who helps the children discover what they are curious about and which overall driving question they want to find the answer to. This strong students’ voice is really what creates and drives a project!
Be based on a meaningful topic that is connected to the real world
One should never forget that children are not capable of abstract thinking skills. Thus, they will only be motivated to pursue a project that they can understand and immediately relate to in their everyday lives. Whilst this may appear to be obvious enough, it is a core principle which one may feel tempted to neglect in the face of rigorous programmes that supposedly prepare children for (state) exams.
Be carefully scaffolded for various types of learners
Carol Read (Read, 2007) reminds that a good YL lesson should be planned to “catch children at being good”. This is also true of an effective project. A good project should be designed so as to bring out and develop children’s natural talents and skills. This being said, it’s important to make sure that each child has been given a clear role within the actual project to guarantee that every child is innately motivated and deeply involved in the project’s execution.
Be embedded with knowledge and skills
Although a good project is student-driven, it should also lead the children to develop the target knowledge and skills that they need to learn at a particular stage of their educational journey. Thus, a project’s driving should naturally be linked to the target content programme. One should also stress that a meaningful and effective project should be research-based and informed by multiple resources so that children are developing the global skills they will later need in the workplace from a young and tender age.
Conclude with a viable end project
Bloom’s revised taxonomy alerts us to the importance of developing the Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) in the classroom rather than stopping at the Lower Order Thinking Skills (LOTS). Thus, it is natural that a successful project should come together in an end product which reflects the final result of the students’ learning process. It is important to stress that this final product should be simple and doable as the objective is to motivate children to learn rather than to burden them with an unrealistic end project which is an unnecessary source of stress for all the stakeholders involved.
So, when all is said and done, what exactly is the secret of a good project? Well, like so many things in life, it should follow the KISS approach to learning:
Vanessa Reis Esteves has been teaching EFL in Portugal for the past 23 years and is currently teaching at Escola Superior de Educação where she teaches English for Academic purposes and English methodology. She has taught both in private and state schools. She holds a Master’s degree in Anglo American studies and is involved in teacher training in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Romania, Turkey, Croatia, Slovenia, Malta, Portugal and Egypt. She presently writes course material for EFL students and has recently written ETpedia: Young Learners with practical ideas on teaching YLs for Pavilion Publishing in the UK. Her areas of interest are teaching YLs, (Pre)Teens as well as Critical Thinking and 21st Century skills.
Larmer, S. B. (2018). Project based Teaching, How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences. Novato: ASCD Learn.
MacDonell, C. (2007). Project-Based Inquiry Units for. YoungChildren, First Steps. to Research for Grades Pre-K-2. Worthington: Linworth Books.
Read, C. (2007). 500 Activities for the Primary Classroom, Immediate Ideas and Solutions. Thailand: Macmillan Books for Teachers.
Robinson, K. (2010). Bring on the Educational Revolution. https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_learning_revolution.
 For more information, consult: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000109590