Project Based Learning & Culturally Responsive Teaching

There is much discussion lately among teaching communities about the concept of Culturally Responsive Teaching. There have been many equity and diversity models in education over the years, so it is important to distinguish the differences between them to better understand CRT. According to the work of Zaretta Hammond, self proclaimed “former writing teacher turned equity freedom fighter,” CRT can be distinguished from other models in the following ways:

Multicultural EducationSocial Justice EducationCulturally Responsive Teaching
Focuses on celebrating diversity.Focuses on exposing the social political context that students experience.Focuses on improving the learning capacity of diverse students who have been marginalized educationally.
Centers around creating positive social interactions across difference.Centers around raising students’ consciousness about inequity in everyday social, environmental, economic, and political aspects of life.Centers around the affective & cognitive aspects of teaching and learning.
Concerns itself with exposing privileged students to diverse literature, multiple perspectives, and inclusion in the curriculum as well as help students of color see themselves reflected.Concerns itself with creating lenses to recognize and interrupt inequitable patterns and practices in society.Concerns itself with building resilience and academic mindset by pushing back on dominant narratives about people of color.

While there is no singular approach to inclusive teaching, it is worth noting that different approaches favor different outcomes. The goal with Multicultural Education could be stated as striving toward social harmony. The goal with Social Justice Education could be stated as engendering and cultivating critical consciousness. The goal with Culturally Responsive Teaching, however, places a premium on all students actuated as independent learners.

The value that this approach brings to the conversation of equity and inclusion should not be understated. Harmony and consciousness are important, but achievement is also a favorable outcome. It is favorable because it equips the learner with the skills needed to create the life that they choose. But CRT is not a checklist. Teachers do this work responsively. They are practitioners and practitioners are positioned to evaluate the impact of their practice as it pertains to achievement outcomes. After all, the case can be made for most instructional practices that they have a positive impact on achievement. Only when approaches are evaluated in comparison with each other can they be understood. This idea has been developed through the research of John Hattie over decades. The text Visible Learning helps practioners evaluate strategies in their own practice, given that Visible Learning “occurs when teachers see learning through the eyes of students and help them become their own teachers.” As PBL teachers, we ask ourselves the question, “How does PBL help students to become their own teachers?”

For a long time, project based learning has been ill-defined and inconsistently administered. The research from Hattie reflects this. PBL in and of itself is not a high-leverage practice. PBL is valuable because it is an excellent vehicle for high-leverage instruction. Unfortunately, there is not enough data yet to evaluate the effect of Gold Standard PBL as dictated by Buck Institute, but we can look at the effect of high-leverage practices if we unpack them within the PBL model. Through these high-leverage practices, practitioners move the locus of learning to the student-centered learning environment. This is a departure from what is often seen as the traditional approach – learning coming from the teacher or text books. Through this reorganization, and in concert with Multicultural and Social Justice Education, the learner is positioned to construct their own narrative.

Hattie describes strategies that are worth the investment of finite instructional time as being greater than or equal to an effect size of .4. He calls this the hinge point. One strategy identified through this work is classified as “strategy to integrate with prior knowledge.” It has an effect size of .94. You can see this programmatically applied in high quality PBL as the “need to know” protocol. Not only does this process account for the diverse perspectives of learners, positioning them to begin the learning path by activating prior knowledge, it sets the stage for authentic classroom discussions. This has an effect size of .82. By returning to the questions laid out by students, and ideally generating new ones along the way, the need to know protocol eschews some of the common pitfalls of traditional discussion structures such as question taxonomies – essentially questions generated by teachers. It also has a tendency to distribute the power dynamics of the discussion because the locus has been moved from the teacher to the students.

Evaluation and reflection is yet another effective strategy that is well-articulated within the BIE’s Gold Standard PBL framework. It carries an effect size of .72. Evaluation and reflection is characterized in many different ways in PBL. The need to know process itself creates a framework for students to self-evaluate their path along a challenging question. We also use protocols embedded in the design thinking framework to ensure that this feedback comes early and often.

Strategies are tools, and educators employ these tools in sophisticated ways to achieve optimal outcomes. John Dewey writes in School and Society, “What the best and wisest parent wants for [their] child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” As culturally responsive teachers, we endure in this mission, and respond to our students through project-based learning.