Agency and High Quality PBL

It is not enough to implement Project Based Learning (PBL) and automatically expect to see dramatic outcomes. First, the quality with which PBL is implemented can vary widely, from authentic, challenging, student-centered implementations to those where students simply follow project “recipes” in lockstep. Second, the results of PBL are not limited to deep learning and better test scores, but rather include a variety of student outcomes such as collaboration skills and improved critical thinking. To fully see the impact of PBL, these, too, must be counted. And, in fact, if these other outcomes do not result from the implementation, it is a sign that the PBL work is, indeed, not of high quality.

In an effort to raise the quality of Project Based Learning across the board, the Buck Institute for Education facilitated the development and recent release of a framework for High Quality Project Based Learning (HQPBL) that helps schools to reflect on the student PBL experiences and outcomes. They worked with over one hundred educators to create this Framework. The team identified 6 criteria: Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment, Authenticity, Public Product, Collaboration, Project Management, and Reflection.

In addition to supporting deep learning and the 4 C’s, these 6 criteria hold the initial seeds to support another critical outcome: Student Agency, by which I mean the tendency and ability for students, of their own volition, to improve or extend their own learning or learning environment. This sense of agency, and the ability to take control of one’s own life and work, will be essential in the rapidly changing workplace that students are graduating into.

In The Workforce Dilemma, Kristin Sharp and Molly Kinder make the argument that the workplace is shifting from one where a 9-5 job is prevalent to one where more and more work is part of the gig economy and where existing jobs are quickly being obsoleted. The requirement to survive through this kind of disruption? Creativity and the entrepreneurial approach of which Agency is characteristic. Kai-Fu Lee, founder of Sinovation Ventures, goes even further in his conversation with Edge. He suggests not only that rote jobs that can be done by machines will be, but that Artificial Intelligence vastly expands what jobs are included in that category. He very eloquently and beautifully suggests that in the things that AI cannot do, we find what it is to be human:

What is interesting for me is that in understanding that these AI tools are doing repetitive tasks, it certainly comes back to tell us that doing repetitive tasks can’t be what makes us humans. The arrival of AI will at least remove what cannot be our reason for existence on this earth. If that’s half of our job tasks, then that’s half of our time back to thinking about why we exist. One very valid reason for existing is that we are here to create. What AI cannot do is perhaps a potential reason for why we exist. One such direction is that we create. We invent things. We celebrate creation.

Creation. Invention. Not just in the pursuit of economic security, though that is crucial, but also in the pursuit of what makes us human. Once again, this will not be the purview of those who sit and wait to be told what to do nor those who expect to be graded and rewarded for compliance. It belongs to those who have the Agency to act and create a place for themselves in a chaotic, changing world.

HQPBL student experiences have tremendous potential to foster Agency. The already existing criteria support, at least to some degree, the basic psychological needs that must be met in order for the conditions to exist where Agency arises. These needs (according to Self Determination Theory) are autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Relatedness refers to the basic human need of belonging, maintaining close personal relationships, and belonging to groups. This need is partially satisfied when the Collaboration criterion is met. To see how well collaboration supports relatedness, try asking yourself, “To what extent do students feel a sense of belonging within their teams?”

Competence refers to the sense of feeling capable of taking on a challenge. This need can be satisfied when the Intellectual Challenge criterion is met. Ask, “To what extent do students engage with problems, questions, and issues in ways that are at just the right level to provide the optimal level of challenge?”

Autonomy refers to the sense of ownership in the cause of action, of being the decider and mover. To a limited extent, this need can be met through project management. Ask, “To what extent do students choose when, where, and how they work, what they work on, and who they work with?”

Beyond those criteria, however, HQPBL has the potential to foster Student Agency much more deeply. The structure of Project Based Learning lends itself to fostering autonomy because students actively work together in groups to solve a problem, answer a question, or address an issue rather than passively receiving information from a teacher. The PBL structure also makes it so that the activity can be entered with varying levels of experience and knowledge as well as different strengths, putting it close to an optimal challenge for a wide variation of learners. Finally, the emphasis on group work creates the opportunity for supporting relatedness. With these characteristics of PBL in place, plus the criteria for high quality, HQPBL is a natural and powerful tool for fostering student agency in the classroom.

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