#5: They develop a maker mindset.
One of the most tragic things I hear students say is “I’m just not the creative type.” I don’t buy it. I don’t believe there is a “creative type” out there. We’re all creative. Every one of us. And PBL is a great chance for students to own the entire creative process, leading to a maker mindset where they can think like designers, artists, and engineers. When this happens, students are able to embrace a larger definition of creativity and value the creative contributions of those around them.
We often hear that our current students will work in jobs that don’t exist right now. But here’s another reality: our current students will be the ones who create those jobs. They will have to rewrite the rules. Some students will be engineers or artists or accountants. Some will work in technology, others in traditional corporate spaces and still others in social or civic spaces. But every single one of them will need to think creatively in their jobs.
As students work through PBL, they are able to experience a broad spectrum of creative thinking. They learn how to think like an artist but also think like an engineer or a hacker. At one moment, they might be building empathy by doing an interview. In another moment, they might be doing prototyping in an engineering project and or engaging in information literacy for a publishing project.
Over time, they see that creative work is interdisciplinary. And this ultimately leads to a maker mindset, where students learn to view the world differently and find new solutions to complex problems. Which leads to the next point . . .
#6: They become problem-solvers and critical thinkers.
PBL encourages students to solve complex problems by engaging in inquiry, research, and ideation. This is the kind of work that you don’t accomplish in filing out a packet or doing a worksheet. It requires students to view problems from multiple angles and sometimes even navigate multiple systems in order to solve these complex problems.
Not only are they solving the problems but they are taking it to the next level and actually creating the solutions. So, they are able to see that problem-solving actually connects to real-world contexts. I remember when we were doing our Tiny House projects and a student said, “I get it now. I understand why people need to know proportional reasoning.” He needed a complex problem, rooted in a real-world experience, for that concept to make sense.
Note that this doesn’t always work. There are moments when it gets frustrating. However, that’s also part of the problem-solving process. Students get the opportunity to fail forward. Which leads to my next point . . .
#7: They develop iterative thinking.
Project-based learning includes a phase for revision. In some cases, it’s more about feedback and revision while other projects require testing and revision. But the idea is the same. Students test, revise, and iterate. This is one of the areas where I see a big disconnect between school (where you are graded once and move on) versus life (where you are constantly improving and iterating).
I want students to learn how to figure out what’s working, make sense out of what’s failing, and then create a better iteration. But this requires a shift toward mastery-based grading as well as the freedom to make mistakes. For all the talk of “high standards,” iterative thinking only works when students experience slack. And yet, when they have this permission to fail, they can then improve their work and develop endurance.
#8: They are more likely to develop a growth mindset.
Iterative thinking ultimately leads to a growth mindset. It’s counterintuitive but the best way for students to have higher standards is to experience the permission to fail. This doesn’t mean we embrace failure but that we treat failing as a part of the learning process. After all, fail-ure is permanent and fail-ing is temporary.
Note that failing isn’t fun. It actually sucks when stuff doesn’t work out. And that’s an important reminder. Sometimes PBL isn’t fun. Sometimes it’s really, really frustrating. I have had students cry when something didn’t work. It wasn’t because of a grade, either. They were simply so into their project that they wanted it to work. But eventually, when it did work, they were able to develop a growth mindset.
#9: They grow more empathetic.
One of the PBL approaches we will explore is design thinking, which is centered around the idea of empathy. In some models, empathy is the starting point. Other times, it occurs in the research and ideation phases. But regardless of when it happens, if students are going to launch heir work to an audience, they need to design products out of a place of empathy.
This is one of those areas that goes far beyond the corporate world. We have a crisis of empathy in the U.S. I see it every time I go to Facebook. People talk over one another and lob easy insults at the opposite side. Trapped in their echo chambers, they move into a place where they miss the pain that others are experiencing. But I think we can change this as educators when we ask students to engage in empathy-driven design thinking.
#10: They increase in metacognition.
When I first saw the metacognition cycle, I thought, “Man, this seems so similar to aspects of PBL.” This is because PBL encourages students to plan, monitor, and reflect throughout the entire process.
So, if we want this for students, they need to work on projects. Real projects. The kind of projects that they get to own. And ultimately that requires a teacher who is wiling to take the leap and make PBL a reality.
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