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Global Education

Engage Students and Accelerate Learning through Global PBL

The global pandemic may have disrupted our lives, but it has also shed light on our interconnectedness and the urgent need for collaboration in solving global issues. Now, more than ever, it is clear that we must work together to tackle challenges that affect us all. Through Participate Learning’s Global Leaders framework and meaningful project-based learning experiences, we can cultivate a sense of agency and empower students to take action to address current and future challenges.

PBL and Global: A recipe for student engagement and relevant learning

Project-based learning, or PBL, is a great approach for engaging students in problem-solving with a purpose while also addressing content standards across subject areas. And when you incorporate global competencies and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), you set the foundation for powerful learning experiences that motivate students to use critical thinking skills, grapple with authentic and challenging problems, develop social-emotional skills, and use their voices to take action in their communities and beyond. 

Since project-based learning can seem abstract, let’s take a look at how third-grade teacher Katie Gourlay used global learning as a framework for PBL in her classroom. By doing so, she was able to create relevant and authentic learning experiences to engage students, give them a strong sense of agency, and instill confidence in their ability to solve global challenges. (Watch the following clip, from minute 16:11-19:25, for a peek at how she does this). 

Beginning with the end in mind

In order to create a solid global PBL project, Katie knew she needed to do two things: 1) begin with the standards—in this case, third-grade math and literacy standards around measurement and persuasive writing—and 2) create a context for learning that would be meaningful and empowering to students. Let’s take a look at how Katie used the different stages of inquiry to plot out her project, which centered on how community and industry affected water quality in Crabtree Creek, near their school in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Element 1: Ask a challenging question with a local and global context

Katie launched this project by posing a challenging question to her students: How do we protect water sources in our community? 

Katie didn’t ask her third-graders to solve the issue of access to clean water, but she did invite them to start paying attention to the impact of people and industry on the creek and wildlife near their school. Determining the right question is in the Goldilocks zone of learning: not too difficult, not too simplistic, but with just the right amount of complexity to support sustained inquiry for students. 

With that question in mind, three SDGs came into focus: Life Below Water, Life on Land, and  Climate Action. By attaching those SDGs to her project, Katie added a sense of urgency and purpose to the question she was asking by inviting her students to see themselves as part of a global project that concerns and impacts millions of people around the world. 

Element 2: Global PBL and sustained inquiry

According to the Buck Institute of Education, sustained inquiry is a process in which “students engage in a rigorous, extended process of posing questions, finding resources, and applying information.” 

Katie speaks to how an action project designed around a global issue can provide the foundation for sustained inquiry, saying that the SDGs are “quite encompassing goals that give a project different angles.” As you can see from the collaborative project Katie’s students did alongside students in a Malawian classroom, one question led to another, resulting in a complex, multifaceted research experience: an experience with more than one path for inquiry and one where students could bring background knowledge and personal experiences to the learning in many different ways.

First, Katie’s students researched land use around their local creek to understand how the community and nearby industries used water. Next, they tested the water quality to learn about the impact of those factors on the creek. 

After sharing and comparing their results with their Malawian peers, students designed water filters to reduce the negative impacts of pollution on life forms and animals that use their local water source.

One way Katie helped her students extend their inquiry was by introducing a guest speaker who provided a different perspective on why and how people plant various crops around the world. Mr. Dickson, a subsistence farmer in Malawi, gave students a fresh opportunity to ask questions and apply their learning about plants, soil, and farming in new ways. By experiencing a virtual field trip to his farm and learning about how he uses the food he grows to feed his family, students made connections to food sources where they live and around the world.

Element 3: Global PBL and authenticity

One thing that makes global project-based learning an effective way to engage students is that it is authentic. This authenticity helps students identify connections between local and global issues, which, from our experience, further motivates them to find answers to meaningful questions. 

By connecting with Malawian students, Katie’s class learned that access to clean water is necessary regardless of where you live. Together with their Malawian peers, they worked to design solutions—water filters—to address the issues. They used their voices to share their knowledge and change perceptions and behaviors around water use in their own community.

The authenticity of this project also fosters key global competencies such as curiosity, empathy, and respect for difference. This happens when students are provided with opportunities in which they learn about and from people who are different in some ways but similar in others. These competencies will prepare them well for their future in the global marketplace. 

Element 4: Student voice and choice within Global PBL

As with any well-designed project-based learning experience, Katie developed hers with student voice and choice in mind. How would her students use their learning to make a difference and take action in their community? Through their individual and collaborative efforts, they addressed SDG 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities. The work her students did alongside their peers in Malawi extended beyond the classroom and had them thinking about how to use their voice to make their own community more sustainable. 

Element 5: Provide opportunities for project reflection

Katie wove opportunities for reflection throughout her project, providing space for her students to make meaningful connections, ask thoughtful questions, and choose a direction for the next steps of the inquiry. 

Katie’s students began their inquiry by wondering how to protect water in their community. Later, they were able to share their findings with their Malawian counterparts to discuss and reflect on what they learned. Finally, they used these moments of reflection to put their learning into action by designing water filters and educating the public. These experiences provided rich opportunities for reflection on the SDGs and how they connect to different contexts throughout the world, thus building intercultural understanding. 

Element 6: Incorporate new learning through critique and revision 

Katie’s project invited students to engage in the process of critique and revision in an organic way. How did their understanding of how communities use and protect water change after talking with their Malawian peers? How did they apply reflection, observation, and trial and error to their water filter project, which required flexibility, creativity, and collaborative effort? Once again, students applied critical thinking skills throughout this project so they were able to make adjustments to their plan as they observed and applied their learning. 

Element 7: Produce a public product 

With the creation of their public service announcements, Katie’s students created an outward-facing product that connected their classroom learning directly to the community. The fact that they were able to share their knowledge and provide a call to action is a powerful example of authentic learning.

Remember: you don’t need all the answers to get started.

If Katie’s project has inspired you to try your hand at global project-based learning, chances are good that you have questions and perhaps also trepidation about how you might be able to carry off a project-based learning idea in your own classroom. 

This is normal

You likely won’t have your whole project mapped out before you begin—in fact, you shouldn’t. While relinquishing control can be difficult for many teachers, not having a complete plan leaves room for students to drive the inquiry. It allows for teachable moments and inquiry to be driven by reflection, critique, and revision. It also mirrors authentic problem-solving because, in life, no one has a complete and detailed solution mapped out from the beginning.

Global PBL takes a little practice, but by infusing these elements you can design a project that will engage students in rigorous learning and will prepare them to collaborate with people from all backgrounds and cultures. Students will learn the target content, practice collaboration skills, and develop as global citizens who take responsibility and action in their community and the world. 

Interested in trying out a global project-based learning experience? Download our free global lesson plan template to get started.

Are you ready to take the leap and create global, project-based learning experiences for students? Find out more about how we work with schools to develop personalized plans to infuse global learning into their curriculum here. Connect with Participate Learning on Twitter to see more examples of global learning in action.

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