PBL’s Eight Elements through a Global Lens

10/7/2012

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Buck Institute for Education @ bie.org

When we talk about 21st Century Skills in the context of global education, we are still talking about the 3 Cs of Critical Thinking, Communication and Collaboration. Critical thinking in a global context means being able to understand why cultures have the habits or needs they do, and learning to ask the kinds of questions that allow us to understand and connect to a more diverse range of global perspectives and experiences, rather than judging or rejecting them. Communication in the global context is about learning foreign languages—not teaching kids toward test proficiency but toward spoken skills. It is also about learning to navigate language differences and still be able to connect, as no one can learn every language they will potentially confront in the world. Collaboration in global education focuses largely on developing collaborative projects with young people in other parts of the world, or sharing projects across physical and cultural borders in classroom-to-classroom global partnerships.

We do need to add a fourth and fifth C when we consider 21st Century Skills in the global context, and those are Cross-Cultural Competency and Creativity (though I’m quickly becoming a fan of Inter-Cultural over Cross-Cultural, given that people cross multiple boundaries simultaneously in most career fields today). Defining and teaching toward inter-cultural competencies is the heart of global educational work. Creativity helps us foster the young innovators the world so desperately needs, young people who will find new solutions to the world’s oldest problems if we use PBL in our classrooms now to inspire and empower them as divergent thinkers.

Significant Content in Global PBL means ensuring that global experiences are authentic and transformative, not superficial or judgmental—which suggests as well that students should be exploring real-world issues and problems more than simulating them. There is a lot of controversy around creating simulations in global education, and many educators feel that simulations are never as valuable as real-life global experiences. However, depending on your age group, simulations may be a necessary first step toward real-world experiences—and as long as the simulation deals with real world issues in authentic ways, it will still be authentic global learning.

In-Depth Inquiry can include gathering global perspectives through personal learning networks (PLNs) and online global resources, as well as through internationals in the local community. In global education, it is important to stress primary source research, legitimizing it alongside scholarly research as a tool which more deeply humanizes how students see and understand the world. High school teachers, especially at the higher grade levels, may find it challenging to weave primary source experiences into academic courses such as AP, where the focus is consistently on scholarly resources, but both PBL and global education suggest that primary sources have an effect on students which far surpasses the academic (just as a student will remember his/her home-stay family better than anything s/he studied about the region s/he traveled to).

In global learning, a strong Driving Question needs, whenever possible, to focus on a problem and to invite multiple solutions. More than that, a good driving question should require an answer for the wellbeing of humanity and the planet (a natural way of developing that Need to Know which will drive the inquiry). Mind you, not all projects can be driven by a question with profound depth and purpose, but even small tweaks toward a solutions orientation (aka Problems- or Challenge-Based Learning) can make the experience more transformative and empowering for students. Just like a good thesis bites into something important, a good DQ has an edge and purpose which motivate kids to care and make a difference. Remember, too, that the real world role you give students will help define what real people do with these kinds of skills and knowledge, helping students hook into their passions, interests, and potential career fields.

  • Flat Global DQ: What is human trafficking, and where is it happening in the world?
  • Global DQ with Teeth: How can we, as representatives of the various nations involved in and/or impacted by human trafficking, collaborate to end the practice?

Public Audience offers the opportunity to draw in local immigrants throughout a project, people working at global NGOs in the local community, and even local policy makers, not to mention the international individuals and organizations which can be brought into the classroom quite easily through even the simplest video conferencing technologies. A public audience can also be found through online platforms which have an embedded community, where students can post work, give and receive commentary, blog and publish, and participate in discussions with students around the world. Most people doing important, constructive work in the world are frankly desperate to see more young people dedicate their lives to these fields—you’ll be amazed how willing most are to get on Skype and talk to your students for an hour.

Global PBL fosters Student Voice and Choice by empowering students to explore the global issues they are most passionate about and to take action to solve those challenges. By providing significant opportunities for choice in the classroom and voice in the broader community or world, we allow students to grow as empowered young innovators who hold the solutions to our most pressing global problems. We aren’t just fostering future leaders–students are ready to be leaders now, and a transformative global classroom will facilitate and support multiple opportunities for students to step up and take constructive action.

We also need to be willing to be surprised when students come up with something different than we expected, as the divergent, innovative thinkers often will when given the room to grow—and we need to get comfortable seeing this as a good thing, not a bad thing. After a long history filled with condemning the different thinker and often disenfranchising—or even institutionalizing—our most divergent thinkers, it is time to nurture their gifts and foster them toward lives of constructive purpose. Much of this can be done, very simply, by more profoundly honoring their voices and outside-the-box perspectives.

In my personal opinion, the world can only become a better place for our nurturing the most bizarre ideas our students offer, particularly if they have the potential to offer us a whole new set of solution to the world’s oldest, most pressing problems.