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You are here: Home > Online Articles > Authentic Project-Based Learning: A Perfect Fit for International Educators



Authentic Project-Based Learning: A Perfect Fit for International Educators

By Rich Lehrer and Kristen MacConnell


Authentic Project-Based Learning: A Perfect Fit for International Educators
The hallway in the Early Years School (EYS) at Nido de Aguilas was buzzing with excitement. A group of Grade 4 students—measuring tapes and notebooks in hand—were recording data on the height and arm span of several Pre-Kinder (PK) students. The PK students stood with their arms spread wide and patiently waited while the older kids called out numbers to their peers, adding data to their spreadsheets.

When asked what they were doing, the Grade 4 students enthusiastically described the climbing wall they were designing for the EYS playground. Part of their task was to ensure that the wall would be safe. For this, they needed to gather data from a sample of PK, Kinder 1, and Kinder 2 students in order to calculate the best height for the wall. They also needed this data to ensure their design placed climbing holds in the right spots—far enough apart to make the wall fun and challenging but not so far that the wall would be too difficult for the younger children to climb.

That’s project-based learning in action. After five minutes of observation, it was evident that students were taking ownership of their learning, building empathy for younger learners while also serving as role models, using and applying math skills, working collaboratively, and communicating about the process. Their sense of joy and engagement in doing something meaningful and authentic for the school community was evident.

Authenticity: not just real-world but also real-time applications

The Buck Institute for Education (BIE) defines project-based learning (PBL) as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.” Essentially, authenticity in a project can be defined as a shortened timeline between learning concepts and skills and meaningful application of those skills. Teachers who embed real-world and real-time opportunities for students to apply what they learn see high levels of engagement and retention of learning standards.

As schools encourage teachers to view their craft from increasingly creative and occasionally audacious perspectives, students in turn can apply their learning in authentic and meaningful ways.

Although there are plenty of examples of authentic “low-tech” and “no-tech” projects, a new generation of technology is emerging that allows students to create highly refined, professional, and effective products with the potential for actual impact in their communities and the world.

For example, At Brookwood School in Manchester, Massachusetts, Grade 6 students engage in a year-long interdisciplinary project in which they work with seniors in their community to identify areas in their lives where an assistive device might be helpful, and then work with the seniors to prototype, 3D design, and print the actual devices.

Project-based learning has gone international

PBL aligns well with the mission statements of many international schools. This approach to teaching and learning is student-centered, often incorporating fieldwork and connections with experts in the community.

PBL supports deeper learning through active exploration of real-world problems and challenges. In addition to promoting high levels of student engagement, we see a number of reasons why authentic PBL is an excellent fit for international schools.

First, meaningful PBL experiences create connections between students and their local community. Students have opportunities to build empathy, understand different perspectives, and learn more about the culture of their host country. Second, part of the mission and vision of many international schools is to cultivate globally minded students who are critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, collaborators, and empathetic. These are skills that are fostered through authentic PBL.

Finally, although not a necessity, PBL is often interdisciplinary, which provides opportunities for faculty to collaborate. This collaboration requires teachers to get out of their respective silos. An interdisciplinary project between host country teachers and international teachers has the power to build strong relationships, not only among the students but with faculty as well.

It doesn’t come without challenges

Educators making the shift from traditional practices to PBL will likely encounter some bumps along the way. Many international schools have their own set of unique challenges. Gold-standard PBL is most effectively implemented when it is part of a school’s fabric, and high faculty turnover can negatively affect both the continuity of projects and an institution’s commitment to PBL. Ongoing professional development that includes project tunings is essential for success. Additionally, PBL takes time. Careful project planning includes identifying standards, enduring understandings, driving questions, researching fieldwork opportunities, connecting with experts, and prototyping final products. These are all important elements for a successful, authentic project.

Time is at a premium in international schools, potentially making it challenging to effectively plan and implement projects. Finally, we also find that many project exemplars and PBL resources are U.S.-based, pointing toward a need for international educators to find ways to share their projects with each other. Sharing authentic international projects provides inspiration for colleagues around the world.

Where do we go from here?

The days when school was primarily comprised of teacher-centered pedagogies and transmission of information have been on the wane for decades. Schools are moving towards more student-centered approaches in which learners engage in sustained inquiry, apply learning in meaningful and authentic ways, develop agency, and cultivate skills and dispositions that will serve them now, in their daily lives, as well as when they graduate. Authentic PBL provides an ideal vehicle for international schools seeking to bring their school mission to life and empower students to be changemakers in their community.

Do you have an excellent PBL project that provides international students with the opportunity to authentically apply their learning in meaningful ways? Please share it with Kristen and Rich, or come and join us for our TTC 118 course titled “Problem, Project, and Design Thinking” to learn more about these impactful student-centered pedagogies.

Rich Lehrer is the Director of Innovation at Brookwood School (MA) and is a National Faculty Member for the Buck Institute for Education.

Kristen MacConnell is the Director of Curriculum and Professional Learning at the International School Nido de Aguilas.


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