Updated: Jul 13, 2019
Last week I considered seven deficits created by an over-reliance on traditional education models (i.e. methods that center around teachers and content). My goal wasn’t to tear down old methods but rather to highlight how Project-Based Learning can address the learning needs of Gen Z in unique ways. But before we take a look at what could make PBL so helpful, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page concerning what PBL is – and is not.
What Project-Based Learning is Not
Have you ever worked on a project at school? Probably. Most likely, though, your project was just as content-centered as anything else you did at school. You were given a topic, you did research on that topic, and you created an artifact –a poster, a video, a diorama – to show your teacher what you had learned. In fact, your project might not have even required research – maybe it was just something you created to prove to your teacher that you were listening to what was taught in class. In either case, you didn’t create your project for a real or authentic purpose. Your only goal was to show your teacher that you had acquired the correct content.
In PBL, projects aren’t a shiny veneer painted on top of teacher or content-centered education
If what I’ve just described is what the word “project” makes you think of, you’re going to have to unlearn what you have learned. In PBL, projects aren’t a shiny veneer painted on top of teacher or content-centered education. They don’t just reinforce content that students have already learned through other means. Nor are projects simply a fun alternative to a research paper. They aren't created solely for the purpose of showing a teacher what the student has learned (although, yes, they do serve that function). What makes PBL projects unique is that they are real, intrinsically engaging, and they themselves serve as the primary pathway for student learning and growth.
What is Project-Based Learning?
According to PBLWorks, Gold Standard Project-Based Learning is defined by 7 key elements:
1) a problem or question,
2) sustained inquiry,
3) authenticity (i.e. it relates to the real world),
4) student voice & choice,
6) critique & revision, and
7) making the final product public
In a PBL project, learners don’t begin by learning a lesson and then go on to create a project. Rather, the project is the lesson. Learners begin with a problem or question that relates to the real world, and their efforts to respond to that problem propel them to learn and create an authentic response. As they craft their response, their sustained inquiry, reflection, and the cycle of critique and revision push them to create, test, and correct their understanding, which produces deep learning and self-awareness. Because of the authentic nature of the problem, the public nature of their goal, and the real choice they have over the product, the process is much more inherently engaging than typical methods, which tend to rely much more on external incentives or punishments.
Project-Based Learning Goes to Youth Group
Let’s briefly sketch what true Project-Based Learning, including all of the above elements, could look like in the context of youth ministry:
1) The Problem: The youth leader might challenge his students to find a way for their church to better engage in acts of mercy and justice in the local community.
2) Inquiry: Youth (most likely in teams) would work together to discover what kinds of needs the Bible calls Christians to address, explore where those needs are present in the community, and identify organizations that are currently addressing these needs.
3) Authenticity: The goal of exploring this topic isn’t to articulate in the abstract what the Bible says about mercy and justice; it’s for the youth to take action in the real world. After finding a biblical call, local need, and existing organization, youth could begin serving with that organization. Eventually their goal might be to promote the organization to the entire congregation and inspire real investment on the part of all members.
4) Voice & Choice: Of course, it’s not uncommon for youth leaders to invite their students to serve together in a local organization. The difference here is that it’s the youth who are researching and choosing what organization to serve with, not the youth leader. The ability to have real voice in determining what need to address and what organization to partner with inspires a sense of ownership in youth. Moreover, when they youth are ready to begin informing and persuading the congregation to invest in this cause, they can make use of their own unique gifts and creativity.
5) Reflection: Throughout this process, the role of the youth leader would be to create space for youth to pause and reflect on what they’re discovering and experiencing. These times of reflection are where real “aha!” moments can take place and the youth can become more self-aware of their own growth and learning.
6) Critique & Revision: As the youth prepare to launch a campaign to inform and persuade the congregation, they could receive feedback and critique not only from the youth leader but also from members of the organization that they’ve been partnering with. As they receive this feedback, they’ll continue to hone their projects and go deeper in their learning.
7) Public Product: Eventually the youth will “go public” by informing the congregation about the need in their community and seeking to persuade members to invest in their organization in a concrete way. This could take a lot of different forms, depending on the creativity of the youth: sharing a testimony during worship, making a presentation about the organization to the diaconate, creating a discussion guide for community groups to use, or hosting a fundraiser or informational event for the church.
This is, of course, not a fully-realized plan for applying PBL to youth ministry. There are a lot of questions – When would the youth work? What would motivate them? Is there time? What scaffolding and structure would you need to provide? – that I haven’t answered here. For now, I’m just trying to open up our imaginations concerning what could be done. In a couple weeks (after a brief break for Holy Week), I’ll go on to explore more of why this would all be helpful – how doing a project like the one above would address the very deficits I pointed out in my last post. But until then take a moment and consider: what kinds of real world problems could become the impetus for real learning among your youth?