How Do We Engage 21st Century Learners?

By Page Stites, Upper School Director

Field teachers are designing meaningful and intentional project-based learning experiences for our students. Learn more about how student engagement increases purposeful learning.

At Field we have been working hard to design meaningful and intentional project-based learning experiences for our students. As Field teachers and students build their expertise with project-based learning, or “PBL”, one of the many benefits to our students is increasing their engagement levels. 

Education researcher and author Phillip Schlechty defines two key elements of student engagement: attention and commitment. Schlechty maintains that many schools and classrooms create cultures of engagement that are much stronger on attention than on commitment, a condition he labels “strategic compliance” and argues should not be the ideal. A genuinely engaged student demonstrates high levels of attention and commitment to the work. This two-pronged engagement is what leads to deep, meaningful learning and persistence in the face of challenges.  

Spending time in many classrooms this fall, I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing high levels of student attention and commitment. Thoughtfully crafted projects drive this engagement, especially when they contain the essential elements of what PBLWorks, our guides on this journey, call "Gold Standard PBL.

Gold Standard Project Based Learning by PBLWorks is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

This model for high-quality PBL is something we’ve been working with extensively, supported by the experts at PBLWorks through multiple days of professional development. While each of these project design elements contributes to student engagement, I’d like to highlight some examples of projects that I’ve seen in action here at Field that have a powerful impact on student engagement through three of the elements above. 

Challenging Problem or Question

In History 10, teachers Alexis Redford-Maung Maung and Aaron Bachmann have challenged students with a project to write an argumentative piece that addresses this question:

“What were the impacts of racist ideas throughout history, and why should we continue to study race in schools today?”

Students will base their essays on their study of key moments in the history of global racism, from the historical creation of racist ideas to the persistence of racist ideas and practices in modern-day society. This question is an example that does not have one “right” answer, and that engenders detailed and nuanced thinking. The question is challenging and creates the conditions for students to develop a commitment to their work. The inquiry leads to a meaningful task that requires this commitment: students will have to make their own historical claims and support them with carefully selected evidence. Compare this to a more “traditional” model where students might have to answer multiple-choice questions about historical facts or memorize the dates of important events. To accomplish the task that Alexis and Aaron have set out and rise to the challenge of this particular question, students must focus their attention and demonstrate commitment. 

Public Product

In the Studio course “3D Concentration: Functional Pottery”, teacher Sarah Riley’s students are involved in a “Breakfast of Champions” project. Students create a six-piece set of ceramic dishes and then host a lunch with guests. As Sarah has shared with her students, one of the primary goals of the project is for students to learn to “experiment, plan, and make multiple works of art and design that explore a personally meaningful theme, idea, or concept.”

The project culminates with the guests eating a meal off the dishes the students have made in the class and then critiquing and providing feedback to the students on their work. This kind of public product, where an authentic audience comes from outside the classroom, can be very motivating for students and creates ideal conditions for high levels of commitment. Rather than simply producing something for their teacher, students expand their scope and think about how a broader audience will view the work.

Voice & Choice

In Chemistry, teachers Rachel Kloecker, Adrienne Nicholson, and Emily Garvin challenged their students to redesign a product’s packaging to make it more sustainable. As the teaching team writes in their project description:

“Students explore unit conversions, volume, surface area, and dimensional analysis to develop prototypes that meet the product’s packaging design constraints while limiting the packaging material used and/or waste generated. Students develop data analysis to submit proposals to companies such as Amazon to convince them to adopt their designs.”

This project contains many of the hallmarks of “Gold Standard PBL,” but when I saw it in action in the classroom last week, the uniqueness of each student’s design was what truly grabbed my attention. Through a carefully scaffolded process of ideation and reflection, the Chemistry teachers have supported their students in finding ways to explore something of interest to them while still accomplishing the explicitly stated learning goals of the project. Students I spoke with commented on how much they valued coming up with and developing their own ideas. The diversity of the ideas and final products, and the overall high level of quality of student work the project elicited, are significant indications that this project hit the mark for extraordinary attention and commitment. 

As all the teachers at Field work to get better at designing and implementing high-quality project-based learning, our students have had to shift their ideas of what it means to be actively engaged and invested in their own learning. I’ve heard my students asking me for the comfort and familiarity of teaching through direct instruction and more traditional “lectures.” A 2019 Harvard study found that while students learn more through active learning strategies, like those intentionally embedded in PBL, they don’t always think that they are learning as much as they are. In fact, the study found when it compared active learning and lecture-based learning that objective measures of student learning were strongly negatively correlated with students’ perception of their own learning. Being actively engaged in one’s own learning in a way that requires high levels of attention and commitment is hard work, and we believe it is work worth doing.