Enhancing 21st Century Learning Skills through Project-based Learning

Inquiry Question:

How can coaches support teachers in the effective implementation of project-based learning in a variety of learning environments to enhance 21st-century skills? 

In this module of our EDTC 6105 course, the focus has been centered on 21st century learning and how coaches can use their knowledge of those competencies to drive their work with educators. As I reflected on my understanding and experience with 21st century skills, I thought about areas I wanted to continue to grow in connected to this topic and what my support as a coach would look like in helping other educators to grow in these areas as well. I have had an interest for a while now in exploring how to implement project-based learning into my classroom. This interest drove me to my inquiry question and to researching how coaches can support teachers in implementing project-based learning to enhance 21st century skills. The research for my inquiry question for this module was focused on indicators from ISTE Coaching Standard: 2 Connected Learner, Standard 3: Collaborator, and Standard 4: Learning Designer.   

ISTE Standard 1: Change Agent
a. Create a shared vision and culture for using technology to learn and accelerate transformation through the coaching process.

ISTE Standard 3: Collaborator
a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies.

ISTE-Standard 4: Learning Designer
a. Collaborate with educators to develop authentic, active learning experiences that foster student agency, deepen content mastery, and allow students to demonstrate their competency.
d. Model the use of instructional design principles with educators to create effective digital learning environments.

What is 21st Century Learning?

Before I began exploring how project-based learning enhanced 21st century learning, I wanted to spend some time researching 21st century learning and strengthen and refine my understanding of these competencies. When defining 21st century skills, you may often hear them referred to as the 4 C’s: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. As Juliana Lapek (2018) explains, “Students with these abilities are better able to adapt to new situations, solve their own problems, share their ideas, and reflect on how their actions affect others (p.67-68). Through the acquisition of the 4 C’s, students can become more flexible in their approach to solving problems, learn to practice active listening when collaborating, and grow in their ability to communicate. In the recent shift to distance learning, the necessity for learning these competencies has become even more apparent. While many educators are already incorporating these competencies into their instruction, there is not always an intentional focus on the integration of these skills or analysis of how effectively students have acquired them. Through the implementation of project-based learning, coaches can support educators in intentionally focusing on the 4 C’s of 21st century learning in their instruction.   

How does Project-based Learning Address the 4 C’s?


Whether it happens digitally or face-to-face, one-on-one, or in a variety of group sizes, communication is an essential 21st century learning competency and an integral component of project-based learning. In a project-based learning approach students are centered in the learning, and for students to be active participants in the learning process communication skills are necessary. While engaging in a project-based learning assignment, students are asked to practice communication through interviewing experts, listening to ideas from group members, and presenting to an audience. The article Creating a 21st Century Classroom (2015) adds that, “Today’s students must also build skills with multimedia forms of communication, requiring the ability to ‘show rather than tell’ using pictures, music, intonation, and more” (p. 5). With project-based learning, students learn to locate and synthesize information, and then effectively communicate their ideas and solutions.  


In a project-based learning approach, students are also required to grow in their collaboration skills by being partners in the learning process with their teachers and peers. As students work to complete their projects, they are providing feedback to others and receiving revisions themselves using developed rubrics and examples. Project-based learning enhances 21st century learning, especially when it comes to the skills of collaboration. As we prepare students for future careers, we must provide students with constant opportunities for collaboration. Project-based learning emphasizes the importance of teamwork, including the development of norms and distribution of responsibilities. As students develop collaboration skills during project-based learning assignments, they become decision makers, learning to listen to ideas, combine approaches, and leverage group members’ strengths.  

Critical Thinking 

As educators support students in developing 21st century skills to become active, engaged members of society, the importance of developing critical thinking continues to expand. Critical thinking plays a vital role in solving challenging problems, asking questions of inquiry, evaluating information, or providing reflection. John Mergendoller (n.d.) explains that, “If students are going to learn to think critically, they need complex, authentic issues to think about, and well-designed or curated materials to help them understand each issue’s complexities” (n.p.). Our students are seeking opportunities to engage in authentic, meaningful experiences, and project-based learning provides those experiences. Embedded in the research connected to these authentic real-world opportunities, is the need for students to think critically about information. Project-based learning has students think about issues critically, thinking about perspectives of those connected and credibility of sources. Developing the 21st century skill of critical thinking also means leaving space for reflection, feedback, and revisions. All essential components of project-based learning.  


I feel that creativity is sometimes the 21st century skill that may get overlooked the most or not emphasized enough when developing instruction. Creativity is essential when working to address some of our world’s most complex issues. Project-based learning puts creativity at the forefront, empowering students through voice and choice to take a creative approach to problem-solving. The article Creating a 21st Century Classroom (2015) reminds educators that, “To promote creativity in our students, we need to create a learning culture that values and promotes creative behaviors. One of the biggest predictors of a person’s creative capacity is their openness to experience” (p.4). One of the ways educators can foster creativity and an openness to experience for their students is by creating a classroom culture that supports risk-taking. Through the transfer of responsibility to students on how to demonstrate their learning, educators can encourage creative, innovative approaches from their students.  

Strategies for Supporting Educators in Implementing PBL

Reflect and Plan

One way learning coaches can support educators in implementing project-based learning is by collaborating in coaching conversations to develop a plan and set goals using PBL rubrics and planning sheets. Figure 1 below is a Project-based Teaching Rubric from PBLWorks, which identifies several different experience levels in PBL and correlating action plans for implementation. Learning coaches can utilize this rubric with educators to guide coaching conversations, align standards, and develop assessments. As educators become more experienced with PBL, coaches can use this rubric to drive further inquiry in developing and revising PBL projects.  


Figure 1. PBLWorks Project Based Teaching Rubric. Retrieved October 30th, 2020 from https://my.pblworks.org/resource/document/project_based_teaching_rubric

As coaches continue to engage with educators in coaching conversations related to PBL, coaches can continue to support implementation through intentional reflection. Figure 2 below is a Project Path resource from PBLWorks. Coaches can use this Project Path tool with educators to reflect on what students think about during each phase of the project, and simultaneously how teachers can support that inquiry. A useful component of this resource that I think further pushes reflection are the guided “revision” arrows, which direct teachers to move backwards on the path when it is necessary to provide more support for inquiry. By using these two resources from PBLWorks in coaching conversations, coaches can successfully support project-based learning and enhance 21st century skills. 


Figure 2. PBLWorks Project Path. Retrieved October 31st, 2020 from https://my.pblworks.org/system/files/documents/PBLWorks_Project_Path.pdf

Model Formative Assessment

Coaches can also support educators in implementing project-based learning by modeling formative assessment. In an effective learning environment, specifically project-based learning, educators need to continuously provide formative assessment to adjust the learning to the needs of each individual. Effective coaching is no different, and a learning coach can model the use of formative assessment with educators through coaching conversations. Myla Lee (2018) expands on the importance of formative assessment in coaching between an educator and student during project-based learning. “This is the thread, woven into all these skills, that helps a coach decide what moves to make” (n.p.). Coaches can collect formative assessments during coaching conversations to gain a better understanding about the challenges and successes their coachees are experiencing in regards to PBL. Information from this assessment can help coaches support future conversations around goal-setting as well. It is important in developing trust and transparency in coaching relationships, that coaches share information they have collected from formative assessments with their coachee. This also models the practice of effectively using formative assessments with students during project-based learning.  

Celebrate Successes

Learning coaches can also successfully support educators in implementing project-based learning by the celebrating successes that are happening in their schools. Exploring a project-based learning approach may be new for many educators at your school, and an effective way to encourage others to step into an area of growth and discomfort is by showcasing successes. If there are teachers in your school who are using project-based learning in their classrooms, invite other teachers to observe their lessons or celebrate this learning at a staff meeting. Learning coaches could also share feedback students who completed project-based learning assignments gave to their teachers. Sharing this feedback with other educators might provide encouragement for them to see the value in also providing these 21st century learning opportunities for their students.  

As I continue to grow in my understanding and experience with project-based learning in my classroom, I will also reflect on how I can successfully support other educators as a learning coach in implementing it as well. 21st century skills are vital for our students to learn as we prepare them for success in today’s world. I believe that the acquisition of these skills happens effectively through project-based learning. As a learning coach, what are your experiences supporting the implementation of PBL? How do you support the enhancement of 21st century skills? Please share your thoughts and experiences, as well as any feedback or questions you have, in the comment section below. 


Battelle for Kids. (2019). Partnership for 21st Century Learning Frameworks & Resources. Retrieved from https://www.battelleforkids.org/networks/p21/frameworks-resources 

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Corwin. 

ISTE Standards for Coaches. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches 

Lapek, J. (2018) Promoting 21st Century Skills in Problem-Based Learning Environments. [PDF]. Retrieved October 28, 2020 from  https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/CTETE/v1/pdf/lapek.pdf 

Lee, M. (2018, November 13). Coaching Your Students: Team PBL! Retrieved November 02, 2020, from https://www.pblworks.org/blog/coaching-your-students-team-pbl 

MyPBLWorks. (n.d.). Project Based Teaching Rubric. Retrieved from https://my.pblworks.org/resource/document/project_based_teaching_rubric 

MyPBLWorks. (n.d.). Research Brief: PBL Helps Students Become Better Decision Makers. Retrieved November 02, 2020, from https://my.pblworks.org/resource/blog/research_brief_pbl_helps_students_become_better_decision_makers 

Stark, L. (2020, January 10). Shake It Up: Get the Most out of PBL with the 4 Cs. Retrieved November 02, 2020, from https://www.commonsense.org/education/articles/shake-it-up-get-the-most-out-of-pbl-with-the-4-cs 

Tech4Learning (2015). Creating a 21st Century Classroom: Combining the 3R’s and the 4C’s. [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.tech4learning.com/files/Creating_a_21st_Century_Classroom.pdf?submissionGuid=386b917e-09bc-4052-8bc2-fc6a1e9005ef 

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