Why Project Based Learning and Sustainability are the Perfect Pair

When we talk about sustainability, we are really talking about transforming communities. When we are dealing with the big, wicked problems listed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (No Poverty, Gender Equality, and Climate Action, just to name a few) we need all hands on deck. Then why does our schooling system effectively separate K-12 youth from their communities and our democracy for the first 18 years of our lives? Why don’t we have a global call to focus 100% of school time on learning about and solving community problems? And it’s not just schools that contribute to this exclusion of young budding activists. Many community based organizations have minimum age limits for membership or participation. If a 12-year-old is really passionate about affordable housing and ending gentrification in your community, why should you not let that passionate and conscientious digital native run your social media campaign to help get folks out to community meetings?

Have I convinced you that we should use the school day to transform our communities? Here at Chatham’s Eden Hall Campus K-12 Programs, we believe that Project Based Learning (PBL) is the pedagogy that allows for this transformational work in the classroom most effectively. According to a summary of existing PBL research, collected by the Buck Institute, PBL brings the following benefits to schools:

  • Deeper understanding of content and improved retention
  • Improved performance on standardized tests
  • Better problem-solving skills
  • Improved collaboration and conflict resolution skills
  • Increased student engagement and attendance
  • Increased job satisfaction for teachers

On top of these, PBL also allows students to drive their own learning, builds relationships between the school and the community, and is a perfect tool for practicing culturally sustaining teaching and working to close the opportunity gap.

Digging deeper into the seven essential elements of “Gold Standard PBL,” we can see how this pedagogy works so well with the concept of sustainability. Authentic, challenging, place-based problems are brought to the table. Student voice and choice determines where the project goes, while sustained inquiry, reflection and critique and revision guide the solutions and deliverables presented to be high-quality. Presenting solutions in front of a public audience of community members and stakeholders that care about the problem make student work meaningful, and show adults in the community that youth can contribute to some of the biggest problems we face.

Gold Standard PBL design elements from the Buck Institute

Feeling energized to try integrating sustainability with PBL to bring your practice to the next level? Join us for a “PBL Through the Lens of Sustainability” Workshop, join a community of educators committed to this work on Facebook (where you can also find sample units), or see some student-presented results of PBL at the annual Seeds of Change Conference. Already doing PBL in your classroom but focused on simulations or design challenges that don’t actually create products that are authentically useful outside the classroom context? Not all PBL is high quality and not all PBL contributes to community change efforts. We hope the network of peers that comes together at Eden Hall can help you get there.



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