7 Project Based Learning to Develop 21st Century Competencies

Melanie Baird


Ontario Tech University


Project Based Learning is an essential practice that empowers students and builds important skills. The real-world context and challenging nature of PBL is a way for students to acquire and apply 21st Century Competencies. This chapter will specifically address the important benefits that PBL helps to develop through the overarching categories of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. The validity of this work is created through the authenticity and challenge that PBL creates for learners. A successful PBL unit develops teamwork, accountability, problem-solving, new and creative ideas, risk-taking, verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and critical thinking skills in learners. These are important tools for students to be successful in school and in their future. The use of Project Based Learning in the classroom is also supported by various researchers and learning theories, which will also be discussed throughout the chapter. Technology should also be used to enhance and support a PBL unit in the classroom and some applicable tools will be shared. At its core, PBL is an authentic learning experience that is engaging for students and brings an important challenge to the classroom. Therefore, PBL is an important addition to curriculum.

Keywords: 21st Century Skills, Global Competencies, Project-Based Learning, Technology


Bell (2010) defines Project Based Learning (PBL ) as “a student-driven, teacher-facilitated approach to learning” (p. 39). Further, “Project Based Learning is 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” (PBL Works, 2019). The main components of PBL include an authentic problem, a driving question, inquiry, collaboration, a public product and reflective practices. In order for students to successfully meet the challenge required by PBL work in their classes, they need to effectively draw on 21st Century Skills. There are some differences between sources in defining these skills. For the purposes of this chapter, the skills are defined as follows: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and innovation and communication (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016 p. 12-13).

Gold Standard PBL
Figure 1. Gold Standard PBL (PBL Works, 2015)

Background Information

In order for students to successfully meet the challenge of Project Based Learning, students need to draw on these competencies. Further, 21st Century Competencies are hard to teach and assess. PBL should be integrated into curriculum as it enables educators to teach these skills implicitly and through reflective practices.

Why Integrate Project Based Learning to Develop 21st Century Skills

The Ontario Ministry of Education has identified PBL as an important model for learning in the future of education (Hutchinson, 2015, p. 1). It is essential that Project Based Learning is integrated in curriculum. Compared to standard curriculum, 21st Century Skills are not as concrete and can therefore be difficult skills for educators to build in their students. PBL helps educators to address this gap as it fosters “the development of collaboration skills, improvement of critical thinking and creative thinking, complex problem solving, transfer of learning, and positive attitudes towards tasks” (Lee, Huh & Reigeluth, 2015). PBL also helps students develop content mastery through an authentic experience (PBL Works, 2019). PBL supports the learning theory situated cognition as learning is driven by providing opportunities for real world contexts and problem-solving as it helps students to bring their learning into new and authentic contexts (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 2017).

Another important benefit of PBL is that it can foster strong classroom relationships between students and teachers (PBL Works, 2019). Integrating PBL into curriculum is essential as it leads to “greater understanding of a topic, deeper learning, higher-level reading, and increased motivation to learn” (Bell, 2010, p. 39). According to Hutchinson (2015), “students who are immersed in PBL develop 21st century habits of mind related to collaboration and communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, and self-direction” (p.2). When using PBL, content knowledge is retained longer, especially when students are invested in projects they find to be personally meaningful. Further, “increasingly in the 21st Century, what you know is fall less important than what you can do with what you know” (Fullan, 2013). 21st Century Skills are necessary for the future of employment, education, digital citizenship and for active citizenship in the world.

Application: Positive Impact of Project Based Learning on 21st Century Competencies

Project Based Learning to Develop Collaboration


Collaboration is an important classroom skill that is developed through PBL.  According to Fullan and Scott (2014), collaboration refers to the ability to work independently and in teams.  There is an emphasis on “strong interpersonal and team‐related skills including effective management of team dynamics, making substantive decisions together, and learning from and contributing to the learning of others” (p. 6).

In order to be successful in the classroom, collaborative skills are so important for educators to develop.   In the workforce, students need these team work skills in order to work with others to accomplish a common goal (Laar et al., 2017, 583). These skills are also hard to teach in an explicit way.  The integration of PBL into curriculum is important as it gives educators a way to develop these skills.  In collaborative teams, students need to draw on a variety of skills which include listening to and honoring diverse perspectives and problem-solving (De La Paz and Hernández-Ramos, 2013, p. 12). In Social Learning Theory, students learn through cooperative processes.  Specifically, PBL can support “active listening skills…. creativity… productive communication, respect for others, and teamwork”  (Bell, 2010, p. 41).  In order to successfully complete Project Based Learning, collaborative skills are essential.  Student groups have to successfully navigate the challenges posed by working in teams to be successful in this type of work.  Collaboration in PBL is further complicated by the interdisciplinary nature of many projects (Stozhko et al., 2015, p. 2).


The collaborative nature of PBL develops accountability in students (Bell, 2010, p. 40).  When students engage in challenging group work, if they do not follow through with individual contributions there can be both social consequences and academic consequences (Bell, 2010, p. 40).


Students also learn through their interactions with their classmates as they need to be able to communicate and problem-solve effectively to work in their teams (Bell, 2010, p. 40).  In PBL, as the teacher acts as the coach/facilitator, instead of the ‘knowledge-keeper’, students have a greater reliance on their peers (De La Paz & Hernández-Ramos, 2013, p. 12).  This aspect of PBL supports the learning theory, partnering, as it requires the teacher to alongside their students and be more open to students’ interests driving the learning and builds strong classroom relationships (Prensky, 2014).

However, the opportunity for conflict is also increased in group work .  This situation prompts important learning for students as the process of conflict management “challenges individuals to rethink their ideas, coordinate, and collaboratively build their ideas” (Lee et al., 2015, p. 563).   Individual students also benefit by having their ideas subject to criticism as they need to be receptive to feedback and build their ideas based on it (Lee et al., 2015, p. 563).  The skills taught by PBL are so important for students’ success in the classroom.

Creativity and Innovation

Creativity involves “having an ‘entrepreneurial eye’ for economic and social opportunities, asking the right questions to generate novel ideas, and demonstrating leadership to pursue those ideas into practice” (Fullan & Scott, 2014, p. 7).

Idea development. 

Project Based Learning is an essential instructional strategy to include in curriculum as it involves trying to come up with solutions to complex real world problems (Bell, 2010, p. 42). As these complex issues do not have answers that are searchable in Google, creativity is necessary to consider new ideas and develop creative and appropriate solutions (Bell, 2010, p. 42).  PBL supports this creativity by helping students to “generate new or previously unknown ideas, or treat familiar ideas in a new way and transform such ideas into a product, service or process that is recognized as novel within a particular domain” (Laar et al., 2017, p. 583).  Student feedback indicated a positive association between the collaborative nature of PBL and creativity.  They felt that it supportive these creative ideas as students have groups to develop and discuss ideas with (Bell, 2010, p. 42).


Risk-taking is an essential skill for student success in the classroom and the world beyond.  Hutchinson (2015) draws an important connection between PBL and the workforce as “PBL draws on the same well-tested principles employed in the business world by professional project managers” (p.1).   Further, as PBL requires a public product, students need to be vulnerable and willing to share their project.


According to Fullan and Scott (2014), “communication entails mastery of three fluencies: digital, writing, and speaking tailored for a range of audiences” (p. 6).  Communication is an essential skill that is developed by students engaging in Project Based Learning.


When engaging in Project Based Learning, effective communication is a necessary skill to develop in students as it is necessary for group cohesion (Bell, 2010, p. 40).  When educators implement PBL, the authentic team experience makes effective communication essential for success.  Therefore PBL teaches students important lessons about how to effectively communicate in a group setting which is an essential workplace skill.  This type of communication is both overt in the form of verbal discourse between group members and implicit in the form of body language and eye contact.  Group members should exhibit social sensitivity as it is important they have a general awareness of the group norms governing appropriate social behaviour (Lee et al., 2015, p. 572).  PBL is important for educators to employ as an instructional strategy since it fosters strong communication for students.    It is an essential skill for school and work as there are many situations in which people need to be able to communicate effectively with their peers.


Project based learning benefits students by helping them to develop their written and verbal communication skills.  One component of PBL is the public product (PBL Works, 2015).  This final product must be published for a wider audience beyond the classroom (PBL Works, 2015).  In order to successfully meet this challenge, students must ensure their final product is clear, concise and tailored to the target audience.  During a PBL unit, there are multiple opportunities for feedback built into the process (PBL Works, 2015).  Students learn valuable communication skills from this feedback loop (Bell, 2010, p. 43).  These skills are essential for students to develop and PBL helps to build them in an authentic and engaging way.

Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking is “the ability to design and manage projects, solve problems, and make effective decisions using a variety of tools and resources” (Fullan, 2013, p. 9).

Critical thinking skills. 

Another benefit of Project Based Learning is it helps students to learn valuable thinking skills.  In PBL, students engage in local issues and real-world problems for which there may be no clear answer. In order to meet this challenge, students must  “acquire, process, interpret, rationalize, and critically analyze large volumes of often conflicting information to the point of making an informed decision and taking action in a timely fashion” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2015, 12). Since the research students will engage in is complex and does not yield simple responses, students need to make “informed judgments and choices about obtained information and communication using reflective reasoning and sufficient evidence to support the claims (Laar et al., 2017, p. 583).  The emphasis in PBL of self-evaluation and reflection helps students to develop these valuable thinking skills.  The learning theory Bloom’s  taxonomy  of educational objectives discusses the importance of deeper knowledge acquisition.  PBL can support this as it “contributes to students’ progression from the basic level (knowledge) to  the  upper  level  (creativity)” (Stozhko et al., 2015, p. 3).

Useful Technology to Support PBL Integration

The use of technology is beneficial to support Project Based Learning in the classroom.  Technology also supports the skill development that is fostered in PBL.

One of the most important components of PBL is creating a flexible and supportive classroom environment.  Developing positive teacher-student and peer relationships is essential for success.  Tools like Kahoot (Kahoot, n.d.) and Breakout EDU kits can be a fun way to build community in the classroom.  The positive environment benefits student learning as well since they will feel safe and supported in the classroom.

When students are working in groups, generating ideas can be one of the most challenging components.  Google Keep (Google Keep, n.d.), Padlet  (Padlet, n.d.) and thinglink (Thinglink, n.d.) are all tools that can help students to map and visualize their thinking.  Specifically, all of these tools are useful for brainstorming, mind mapping and keeping track of ideas and visuals.

Many of the tools in G-Suite can support the organization and feedback cycle require by collaborative learning. Specially, Google Docs (Google Docs, n.d.), Google Forms (Google Forms, n.d.), Google Slides (Google Slides, n.d.), Google Sheets (Google Sheets, n.d.), Mindomo (Mindomo, n.d.), and Padlet  (Padlet, n.d.) can support both group brainstorming and project management.  These tools also assist educators to clearly assess and evaluate the contributions of each group member.   When school boards use G-Suite as part of their organization, students can build the same Google Docs, Sheets and Slides for seamless collaboration.  Further, teachers can see how meaningfully each student contributed as all edits are attached to individual students.  These tools, particularly Google Docs (Google Docs, n.d.) and Google Slides (Google Slides, n.d.) are beneficial for the feedback cycle that is a key component of PBL.

PBL supports creative technology use as students need to create and share this product with their targeted audience (Bell, 2010, p. 42). There are many technology tools that could be used to create the final public product.  Some examples include, but are not limited to, YouTube (YouTube, n.d.) and Blogger (Blogger, n.d.).

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

Project Based Learning is essential to integrate into curriculum.  Teachers need to bring authentic experiences into the classroom as a way to implicitly develop 21st Century Competencies.  These skills are necessary for students to successfully work in teams and execute their final project.  Student learning is driven by the process work of PBL.  Specifically, engaging learners in a real-world challenge requires students to effectively collaborate, communicate, be creative and to find new solutions and to be critical thinkers.   PBL was also found to increase long-term retention of content, improves problem-solving and collaboration skills, and improves students’ attitudes toward learning (Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009).

For future study, the effectiveness of PBL as a way to teach these skills need to be more tracked and studied.  There is a great deal of research into PBL’s effectiveness which was highlighted in this chapter.  Some excellent anecdotal feedback exists as well.  For example, student voice collected by Bell (2010) showed that students felt that they benefited from “how they collaborated and problem-solved with their groups, and how they worked collectively to foster creativity and enhance their projects” (43).  Social Development Theory (Vygotsky) supports this benefit of PBL.  Students learn through social interactions with peers and teachers.  This type of learning is essential to develop other types of learning.  Part of this theory is the idea that it is essential that students work in close proximity to teachers and peers (David, 2014).

These benefits are what show the importance of PBL integration in curriculum.  However, there seemed to be a lack of concrete statistical feedback.  Also there are some challenges with PBL that would be important to overcome.  Educators need more tools and skills to facilitate this type of learning in the classroom as it is non-traditional and involves risk taking for educators and students.    The benefits of PBL are essential for curriculum development.  One study by National Clearinghouse for Comprehensive School Reform (2004) makes a strong case that Project Based Learning could be the basis for whole school reform.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2019 by Melanie Baird is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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