Building Life and Workplace Skills through PBL

By David Reese, Ed. D.


I often see former students of mine around town. Inevitably, I ask them what they remember from class and I expect them to talk about photosynthesis, mitosis, and food webs, but that is seldom what is discussed.  Instead, they mention the skills they learned and how those skills helped them to be successful in their jobs and life – which I now believe is as equally important as the content I taught. I’d like to say that this was my goal, but it was not specifically.


I have always had a passion for project-based learning (PBL) and problem-based learning, and as such, my classes were structured around these strategies. Today, as I continue to learn about PBL and what matters for future ready learners (Figure 1), I know I was lucky.


Figure 1: 5 Domaines of the Future Ready Learner


Even though it was unintentional, the PBL strategies I used in my classroom were supporting the development and refinement of future ready life and workplace skills.  Providing students with challenging real-world problems or issues help them understand that in the real world, few easy answers exist. To succeed in the workplace, students will need to be able to access knowledge from numerous content areas and create products or perform for a specific audience to help solve problems. It will be important for students to exercise self-direction and work ethic to succeed. Using PBL associated with real-world issues can help engage students, which will be critical to keep them on task. If they believe in what they are doing and think it matters, students are more likely to stay the course. Having students take ownership of their learning with the teacher serving as facilitator can help foster these skills.


Here’s how PBL supports future-ready skills that employers look for:

  • Reflective thinking & adaptability are valuable future-ready skills. At various times during this learning process, it is important for students to step back and consider how their solution is addressing the problem or issue and how they will present their solution. During this reflection, students may need to change problem-solving strategies, use new and existing knowledge to tweak their path or take a new one, or completely rethink their processes. This type of thinking requires students to be adaptable in their work, learning, and expectations as part of authentic learning.
  • Risk taking is an important aspect of project/problem-based learning. All aspects discussed thus far involve some level of risk for students. Risks include: putting yourself out there creatively, working collaboratively and sharing your opinions, demonstrating perseverance on a challenging task, or reflecting on learning, work, and products in an honest meaningful way.
  • Integrity is a critical attribute that employers look for in their employees. Everything else does not matter if the potential employee is not honest, truthful, and self-aware. Helping students understand that mistakes and failures are part of the real world can help them be honest in all aspects of the learning process. Additionally, some problems and challenges may have answers that are not as ethical as others. This is a great chance to have students practice ethical behavior through “real world modeling”. Presenting challenging problems and projects may “stress” students, which may have them thinking about short cuts or cheating. This is a great opportunity for teachers to discuss integrity as it relates to the classroom and as it relates to the problem/project at hand.

These skills all become part of a growth mindset in students. Carol Dweck provides this overview; “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” Teachers are the most important part of creating this environment and giving the students the skills and mental fortitude to succeed in the classroom and beyond.

PBL strategies require students to practice persistence, perseverance, and resiliency – all essential for success in career and life. In many settings, students complete assignments as quickly as possible and expect that the work is done once and they hand it in. Through PBL, students begin to realize the importance of these skills when they move beyond the schoolhouse walls. Requiring students to fully engage using the PBL process helps them practice these skills and sets them on a path to success.



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