Project-based learning is how we teach critical thinking

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1 of 2 (Illustration courtesy of Sam Ellsworth)
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2 of 2 Student Voices columnist Jules Shusterman. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

For this fifth year of The Seattle Times Student Voices project, we invited students from Washington public high schools and colleges to work with Education Lab to write about issues of educational equity. This essay by Jules Shusterman is the second in the 2021 series. Visit http://st.news/studentvoices2021 to learn more about the student writers and read other essays in this series as they are published.

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“Education… is not the learning of facts, but the training of minds to think.” –Albert Einstein

In order to create a generation of critical thinkers, we need to make the use of project-based learning (PBL) in classrooms widespread. Critical thinking (or training minds to think) is one of the most important skills for students to develop. It is correlated with academic success, is invaluable in the ever-changing workplace, and increases empathy – which makes for more meaningful social interactions.

In a world where our children will have to deal with issues like preparing for and finding employment, addressing climate change and COVID-19, PBL is the best way to prepare them to deal with these issues while also increasing engagement and motivation for learning. Despite this, schools continue to teach what to think instead of training how to think.

I have seen the benefits firsthand. For most of my life, I was homeschooled, and one of the main goals — probably the most important — was to learn to think critically. There was a strong focus on projects and “outside the box” thinking. As I got older and started working on math, my parents never told me the right answer. They never said that 2×3 is the same as 3×2. Instead, we made 3 groups of 2 blocks, counted them, and made 2 groups of 3 blocks. Then my parents would wait for me to make the connection. I did not realize at the time, but they were my facilitators, helping me find and make these connections, analyze my experiences, and eventually be my own teacher. Using this approach, school was why I got out of bed in the morning, and why I didn’t want to go to sleep at night. However, when I started going to public school, that quickly changed.

I went to my first public school classes in eighth grade, and already knew most of what was being taught. My teachers told me the information they wanted me to know, and then expected me to repeat that back on tests. Assignments and activities focused on memorization, and I was never encouraged to figure out material on my own.

In my chemistry class, we were told to memorize the periodic table and its atomic weights, and were graded accordingly. I was told that this was important, but I didn’t have experiences that helped me understand this myself. The disconnect made school feel pointless and diminished my drive to learn and improve. My motivation to teach myself, and apply past knowledge to what I learned, began to wane. I started to memorize facts so that I wouldn’t have to think about the class as much. This is the opposite of what I think real learning should be about.

After leaving that school, I joined a FIRST robotics team, where we were challenged to design and build robots to shoot, climb, and manipulate objects. Unlike school, there was no wrong answer, and we had mentors to guide us through the process, rather than tell it to us. When I was building robots, we had a goal: create the best robot we could. As we designed the robot, we learned modular design, physics and math. As we built the robot from scratch, we learned machining, more physics, and safety. As we wired, programmed, and drove the robot, we learned logic, strategy, and cooperation. Through one three-month project, I learned more math, science and English — and had more fun — than I did all year in public school. Beyond that, I also learned critical thinking, leadership, and collaborative skills as a student and co-captain of the team. I learned to thrive and love learning again.

So why did homeschooling and robotics develop my critical thinking skills while public school hindered me? The answer is simple: project-based learning. PBL gives students a long-term goal they can only accomplish by learning something new; giving the learning a purpose and making it fun.

FIRST Robotics is a great example of PBL, but is not the only one. A new study by the University of Washington and Lucas Educational Research involves replacing traditional Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics and Environmental Science curricula with projects involving the same information. One example of these projects involved students running their own mock presidential campaign. The study found that in PBL AP classes, the number of students with grades high enough to earn college credit for the classes was 8% higher than in the traditional classrooms. This increased even more the following year as teachers got better at running PBL classrooms.

PBL is a common term in education, but it is often misused. Many people use it to refer to any project in a curriculum. However, when students are told step by step how to create a baking soda and vinegar volcano, they get much less out of the project than if they had to experiment, observe and create the steps themselves.

Researchers have been suggesting PBL as a means to develop students’ critical thinking skills for years. With conclusive studies starting to emerge, now is the time to act. In this ever-changing world, if we want our students to be successful and prepared to solve the problems of both today and tomorrow; if we want our students to reach their full potential in person or remotely, incorporating PBL in the educational system is a must.

About the author: Jules Shusterman is an aspiring teacher. He holds an associate’s degree from Highline College and will be transferring to Rowan University’s Leadership & Social Innovation program.

About the illustrator: Sam Ellsworth is an independent artist based in Washington state. She has a passion for creating vibrantly colorful art pieces, ranging from illustration and graphic design to sculpture and sewing. You can find her work on Instagram @FlamboyantSpaghetti.