Chapter 1: A Strong Foundation—and Then Some
In Leading the New Literacies, curriculum expert Heidi Hayes Jacobs (2014) describes 21st century educators as standing at a busy crossroads. Buffeted by rapid change and quickly evolving forms of communication, teachers and school leaders must confront decisions about how to cultivate literate learners in these new arenas. Standing still is not an option if we want students to master the literacies and tools they need to fully engage with their 21st century world.
Consider your current learning environment. Is it a destination where students make meaning with the use of digital tools and ready access to information? Do they take that information at face value, or do they evaluate source material for reliability or bias? Is the curriculum prescribed with predictable outcomes, or is it flexible enough for students to explore interests and discover what matters to them? Do they have opportunities to be makers and content creators themselves, sharing their work with authentic audiences? Does learning stop at the classroom door or extend into the wider world through connected learning experiences that develop students’ global competency?
The New Literacies
An environment that’s been reimagined to better engage 21st century learners expands our traditional understanding of literacy. Jacobs (2014) classifies new literacies into three broad categories: (1) digital, (2) media, and (3) global. Rather than calling for a wholesale replacement of traditional education, however, she suggests looking for intersections and fusions of old and new approaches to learning.
In project-based learning, it’s not unusual to combine digital literacy, media production, and global connections in the course of answering a driving question. This may sound daunting if you’re a newcomer to PBL, but we can learn from observing teachers—and students—who have made the journey to digital-age projects. Some deliberately cultivate the literacies that Jacobs (2014) describes. Others push into even newer territory, leveraging cutting-edge tools and introducing students to specialized strategies for problem solving.
Even the most innovative project examples build on a familiar foundation. PBL doesn’t require us to discard teaching and learning strategies that we know work well. For example, the essential skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking all come into play in PBL, regardless of project focus. From the earliest elementary years to the most advanced high school courses, students engage in projects through questioning, researching, close reading, analyzing, and, often, multimedia writing and publishing.
Whether students engage with resources that their teacher has curated or they search for their own source material, they need to evaluate what they read for reliability. When students collaborate with peers, consult with content-area experts, or make public presentations of their findings, they use communication skills. Across curricula, these familiar skills are indispensable in PBL. PBL teachers don’t consider these important skills to be too old school for 21st century students. Instead, they look for opportunities to reinforce them in projects that connect with students’ interests.
Teachers can support students’ project success by incorporating learning activities that build a strong foundation of literacy and critical thinking. For example, writers’ workshops and close-reading techniques may prove useful not only in language arts but also in projects that address social studies or science standards. The same goes for protocols for active class discussions (such as the Socratic seminar and Harkness table methods). Discussions will be more productive if teachers deliberately teach and model how to elaborate, disagree, and make counterarguments. In projects that focus on mathematics and science standards, students use literacy skills for an authentic purpose when they communicate their results with a public audience. All these skills—new and old—are invaluable in building the foundation for PBL.
Four Phases of PBL
The Buck Institute for Education (Boss, 2013) has identified four phases that happen in every well-designed project.
- Project launch: This typically starts with an entry event to ignite curiosity and introduces a driving question to frame the inquiry experience.
- Knowledge building: Students build background understanding and learn new skills to help them answer the driving question.
- Product development and critique: Students apply what they have learned to create something new (such as a product, solution, or recommendation).
- Final presentation and reflection: Students share their polished work with an authentic audience.
All along this pathway, teachers can scaffold the learning experience by anticipating and responding to diverse learners’ needs and customizing instruction accordingly. Some students, for example, may need deliberate instruction and modeling to learn how to collaborate or provide peer critique effectively. Students working on the same project may bring different background knowledge and have diverse academic strengths. During a project, teachers might offer mini-lessons for students who need specific instruction or support, leaving others to work independently or with their team members. The project framework is loose enough to allow for personalization and differentiation yet tight enough to ensure that learning goals are addressed for all. Some projects go well beyond the basics to encourage specialized ways of thinking and problem solving that are useful both in school and in life beyond the classroom.
In the examples in the following chapters, we’ll take a close look at an expanded set of digital-age literacies and the kinds of projects that help students acquire them. You’ll hear about projects that challenge students to make sense of data, craft compelling stories, and bring visual thinking into problem solving. Other projects build students’ media literacy skills and put students on the path to active citizenship, either globally or locally.
In many of the examples, you’ll see students taking advantage of emerging technological tools and platforms. That’s in keeping with Fullan and Donnelly’s (2013) advice that technology should be “irresistibly engaging for the learner. ... In the best innovations, digital tools are participatory, engaging, co-creative, and collaborative” (p. 21).
At the same time, you’ll notice that technology itself is not the primary project focus; it’s simply another tool to help students achieve ambitious learning goals. “This is not about the technology,” insists Robert Kolvoord, founder of the Geospatial Semester program and pioneering educator who regularly introduces students and teachers to geographic information system (GIS) software for problem solving. “When some people see this complicated software, it’s full stop for them. These projects are about students and teachers investigating interesting things and solving problems together. Technology is simply a vehicle.”
Some of the examples ahead connect to trends taking hold outside the classroom. The big data movement, crowdsourcing of information, and the push for innovation across diverse sectors are among the developments that will likely affect how students interact with their world in the near future. Introductions to these trends may turn into career pathways for some 21st century students, and projects often create opportunities to learn from professionals in these emerging fields. Even projects that are on the cutting edge are scaled to the right size and complexity for student understanding.
When digital learners rise to the challenge of real-world problem solving, they acquire a set of skills that will serve them well, long after they leave the classroom (Gallup, 2014). According to media literacy teacher Chris Sperry (2012), “In the 21st century, these are no longer ‘elective’ skills” (p. 49).