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How PBL Could Have Helped a Presidential Candidate

The benefits of project-based learning transcend the classroom, allowing learners the opportunity for growth that will benefit them beyond their K-12 education. The focus of PBL on success skill growth can help them to become great thinkers, problem solvers, and maybe even presidents!

Speaking of presidents, as a social studies teacher I am inevitably drawn to political contests, but this season, like many other people, I have watched the election process like one would view two trains on a collision course; you don’t really want to see the results, but you’re also too fascinated to turn away.

It occurred to me that while both candidates would have benefitted from an education that included exposure to high-quality PBL, one in particular could greatly benefitted from an education rooted in a project-based learning approach. However, since this edu-blogger would prefer not to be sued, as is this particular candidate’s modus operandi, I’m not going to mention this candidate’s name...

Experiencing Failure

The idea of a classroom facilitating failure may seem counterintuitive until you see the result of students who are shielded from experiencing this altogether. Experts agree that we are already seeing the results of this as narcissisms and self-indulgence become ever more prevalent among our youth. Some scholars have suggested that this “fear of failure” is a contributing factor to more and more young people choosing to live at home even after college as they can continue to be sheltered from the result of failure.

Students in a PBL classroom are given the freedom to “flirt with failure” without fear of long-term repercussions thereby building grit and coping mechanism for rebounding after setbacks. Through the project process, they learn to accept setbacks as part of the process and something that can be moved past by working together with the support of others on group products or through structured critical feedback. They also receive additional chances to improve the quality of their final product through self-assessment, carefully structured scaffolds, and reflections on the process.

This year we have mystery candidate whose entire persona is built around the concept of winning and success. He goes to any length to be viewed as incapable of failure despite the fact that he has made more than his fair share of mistakes and that failure is a byproduct of reality. This leads to only one option; making outlandish claims in order to deflect failure or place blame on others.

Solving Problems

Students who graduate from college are currently entering a job market and a world that favors those who can find solutions to all sorts of problems that range from interpreting an exhaustive technical document to creating a more sustainable food supply. Those who can think of creative solutions that can be articulated to others will find more opportunities coming their way as more and more employers “gobble up” these creative thinkers or those who can organize themselves to find the answers they need.

PBL students begin most projects asking themselves, “what do I know and what do I need to find out” a crucial step in problem solving. By admitting that there are facts they have yet to uncover, they are provided with direction, and a cycle of inquiry begins ultimately leading to answers or a next step. Sometimes this process is self-propelled, while other times students look to experts or their peers for help formulating answers and solutions. Either way, a PBL practitioner is more likely to be able to deliver quality, evidence-based solutions.

This year, we have a candidate who has little to no ability to think creatively about complex problems or spend time developing solutions to the serious issues. In the absence of the ability to move past these obstacles or problem solve he instead relies on solutions that are either so vague they are impossible to evaluate, or so riddled with half-truths and straight-up false hoods they can’t even be called serious solutions.

Developing Empathy

Most quality PBL projects are focused on a real-world problem that affect a students’ community, but they can also introduce them to parts of the world that they aren’t as familiar with. Through exploration of these issues and proposing solutions for problems that may not directly affect themselves, students develop a sense of empathy for those they are learning about. While they may be receiving a grade in exchange for their work, exposing them to the plights of others or problems that they may not feel invested in gives them a sense of the benefits connected with service to others.

At the end of last year, my students worked on a project where they investigated an issue in our county and proposed solutions for it. One group chose to focus on the Bay Area housing crisis and learned all about the affordable housing requirements for developments. Most of my students live in single family homes, but they became deeply concerned once they learned about how restrictive the laws were for affordable housing and proposed several measures that they felt would alleviate a shortage that had no affect on them.

Empathy is something sorely lacking in the rhetoric of our mystery candidate. Although he claims to have policy stances that would help those less fortunate than himself, genuine empathy, or being able to relate to the plight of others in a way that doesn’t directly benefit you is totally absent. Also lacking is any connection to people whose cultural background is different than his own, something the right PBL project would have exposed him to and helped expand his worldview.


Although all quality PBL projects provide multiple opportunities for individual work and assessment, the core of good PBL is rooted in collaborative group work. Students work together to solve an authentic problem and in the process learn content and develop the ability to work together more effectively.

Of the many success skills that can become part of a project-based learning experience, collaboration is one of the most common and crucial as most real-world situations involve some sort of group work. Students in a PBL classroom learn how to equitably delegate tasks, come to consensus while respecting individual voices, and learn about the individual strengths they have that can support their group's efforts. Above all, they learn the value of working with others as a way to achieve more.

In a political campaign for president it's easy to forget that there is an entire army of people behind each candidate supporting them, especially when one of the two candidates seems to drop managers and burn bridges left and right. When one looks at the dysfunction between our mystery candidate and the national party structure he’s supposed to collaborate with, it’s not really shocking to see the lack of progress he has made.

Learning how to give and take Critique

Critique and revision is central to the PBL process and an important part of ensuring that students produce high-quality work. The film Austin’s Butterfly clearly illustrates that students of all ages can give peer critique that is helpful, specific, and kind.

In addition to being able to give critique that moves beyond, “this sucks” or “this is good” students need to be able to learn and improve based on the feedback they are given and use it effectively. It’s just as important to be able to take feedback as a professional recommendation and not a personal judgment as it is to give it to a peer so they can improve their work or performance. Students who participate regularly in feedback loops that they use for revision understand that this is part of the improvement cycle and not something they should take personally.

Critiquing an opponent’s position on key issues based on facts is a far cry from the vulgar insults and belittlements that we’ve been privy to this election season. To cite one example, it's fine to say that a political opponent is, “wrong” in their policy positions, and it's fine to say it several times, but since this feedback is not specific or helpful, to say nothing of kind, it is ineffective. And as far as learning from the feedback of others, when one ignores the recommendations of a campaign team or speech writer and goes off book or knocks over teleprompters, you can tell they never had the opportunity to separate critique from personal affronts.

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