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Project-Based Learning with a Civic Engagement Focus

Linking the learning of content with responsible community action both engages and motivates students. As noted educator Paulo Friere explained, intellectual learning should be aligned with social action. Using classroom-based inquiry to take community social action makes schooling relevant and meaningful to students (Zemelman, 2016).  

The call to teach with social action is widespread. In order for our democracy to thrive, we need to address what Levinson (2012) refers to as a “civic empowerment gap,” one that is just as great as the academic achievement gap. Levinson argues that members of poor and minority communities often fail to receive opportunities to develop civic skills needed to improve their communities and their lives. As educators, we must foster students’ sense of agency so that they develop the tools and mindsets needed to promote change and advocate for healthy, democratic communities. Educators must provide opportunities to students for civic engagement:

Civic education should help young people acquire and learn to use the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their lives. [This includes being able to] act politically by having the skills, knowledge, and commitment needed to accomplish public purposes… [and to] have moral and civic virtues such as concern for the rights and welfare of others, social responsibility, tolerance and respect, and belief in their capacity to make a difference. [The Carnegie Corporation and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (2003), quoted in Zemelman, 2016, p. 4]

Not only does teaching and learning with social action increase student engagement but also student empowerment as active citizens (Zemelman, 2016). Civic engagement is all about agency, enabling students to see that they are capable of making a difference in their own and others’ lives. Civic engagement asks students to:

  • study their environment, noticing injustices & identifying issues important in their lives;

  • develop questions to investigate;

  • research the selected issue and decide how to address/improve the situation;

  • develop a goal then plan an action, including identifying key institutions and/or person(s) who have the power to make change;

  • carry out the action; and  

  • track results.

Rather than focusing on students “becoming” citizens, at Lamar we foster the social actions students can make today. Taking social action develops students’ awareness of the needs of others and increases social responsibility. Civic engagement can focus on the classroom, school or community level. The notion of community refers not only to Lamar’s neighborhood and city, but also to state and world. Whatever the target to make the world a better place, high-quality civic engagement opportunities enhance students’ academic as well as social/emotional engagement (Mitra & Serriere, 2015).


Project-Based Learning is the instructional tool that enable Lamar teachers to support students' civic engagement. Known as PBL, Project-Based Learning enables students to develop deep content knowledge, enduring understanding and skills by examining a real-world problem that relates to students’ experiences and/or community.

Teachers design and teach interdisciplinary units that engage students for an extended period of time to investigate a question or solve a problem. The Buck Institute for Education (bie.org) has identified Gold Standard Design Elements for Project Based Learning units. These elements include:      

  

  • Key Knowledge, Understanding and Success Skills - in addition to identifying relevant learning goals based on content standards, teachers identify and address overarching success skills such as the ability to think critically, solve problems, work with others and manage themselves effectively.

  • Challenging Problem or Question - The project is framed by a meaningful problem to solve or question to answer. The question might be concrete (e.g. “How can the school do a better job reducing/recycling its waste?”) or more abstract (e.g. “If and when is war justified?”).

  • Sustained Inquiry - Students are given time to ask questions, identify and analyze relevant resources and engage in research -- both traditional and field-based.

  • Authenticity - The project leads to students having a real impact on others and/or speaks to students’ own concerns, interests or issues in their lives.

  • Student Voice & Choice - Students must exercise their judgment, making decisions about how they learn and demonstrate their knowledge/skills.

  • Reflection - Students continuously reflect on their learning and the progress of their inquiry.

  • Critique & Revision - In order to produce high quality work, student projects are critiqued by peers, teachers, outside adults and experts in order to continually revise their work.

  • Public Product - Students make their product or presentation public by sharing it with an audience beyond the classroom.

As the Buck Institute for Education notes, PBL projects empower children to make a difference in their own and others’ lives, one of our key overarching goals for Lamar students. As students learn with and from experts and organizations, they also develop important executive functioning skills, the “set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one's resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation” (Cooper-Kahn & Dietzel, 2008, p. 9).

The steps involved in Project-Based Learning closely overlap with those involved in civic engagement, namely posing a meaningful question, investigating that question in multiple ways, then communicating the fruits of their inquiry to an authentic audience.

PBL units are taught during Literacy, Science and/or Social Studies blocks, depending on the specific focus of the curricular unit.

One of the key instructional features of Project-Based Learning is the Catch and Release or Release and Catch strategy. Teachers use the catch-and-release technique after they introduce a new skill or concept, releasing students to work on their own. As they monitor students’ independent or group work, teachers “catch” the students again when necessary in order to reteach a skill or re-explain a concept, releasing them afterward to continue practicing on their own. In contrast, the release-and-catch method of instruction asks students to problem-solve prior to whole group instruction. As the teacher observes students grappling with a challenging concept, s/he “catches” them to address any misconceptions and provide direct instruction. In either strategy, teachers need to keep their talk time to a minimum to maximize the amount of time that students have to think and do (Berger, Rugen & Woodfin, 2014).

PBL serves as the primary structure for addressing Civic Engagement. The curricular units that Lamar teachers design provide opportunities for students to identify injustices and issues that are important in their lives; frame researchable questions; study the issue in depth, including social actions that students can and do take to improve their own lives and/or the life of affected communities; and reflect on the results of their efforts to make a difference in their own and others' lives.

Several examples of recent PBL units at Lamar include:

  • The National Wildlife Federation recently designated San Antonio as the first monarch butterfly “champion city” in the United States. In order to live up to our city’s designation, last fall Lamar’s third graders planned and built four raised flower beds in the front of our school. Then our kindergartners became monarch experts, studying the plants that monarchs need on their journey to/from Mexico. They planted the gardens with monarch-friendly plants and held a community event to help the entire neighborhood learn more about monarchs and what individual citizens can do to support butterflies.

  • Savvy Surfers - This fall our fourth graders became savvy internet surfers. By engaging in research to solve a common childhood problem, head lice, students soon realized different websites were giving them conflicting information. Students then studied fact and opinion and author's purpose to decide which websites were giving them the best advice. Students studied other sites and worked together to develop criteria to evaluate websites for truthfulness. We then brainstormed who else we thought should know this important information, and students created infographics to share their knowledge about the validity of websites with younger students at our school and families at a Lamar Elementary parent coffee. Through this unit they gained critical thinking skills and became wise consumers of information.

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