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Using Project-Based Learning to develop key 21st century skills

I recently completed my Masters with my final module being a year-long thesis. With my interest in incorporating project-based learning into PE I decided to dive in deeper and do an official research project on it.

This blog post will be a very short summary of my findings but if you are interested and have the willpower to read the thesis, you can find it here (scroll down to the bottom of the page). Also, please, any critique or comment, please do drop me a message on the chat.

I have always been interested in project-based learning when I stumbled across it way back in 2015. I liked the fact that it encouraged student voice and choice, inquiry, and reflection. But, it was also steeped in authenticity - the world is run by projects and why not learn through projects? I knew it was a viable way of educating by all the reading I had done as well as the units my students had completed. It was time for me to run my own research.

Rationale: Why did I do this project?

From my research, PE seems to be in a precarious situation of becoming increasingly marginalized and eventually redundant. There continues to be some confusion between physical activity and physical education amongst educational stakeholders ranging from administrators, to teachers, to the general public. Furthermore, UNESCO pointed out that PE provision is decreasing around the world. There have been several reasons why this is occurring. One reason is the crowded curriculum that favors academic achievement leaving 'specialist' subjects to the side. Another reason is the inconsistencies on how PE is provided and a lack of definition of what it means to be physically educated. More needs to be done to demonstrate the relevance and importance PE is to our students. Project-based learning appears to fit the bill since it is a flexible model that allows students to think critically, to work independently or in teams, and allows for students to work on their physical skills (cue in the Holistic Physical Education Model).

What unit did I use for my research?

My research project was done through a Track and Field unit. I have a page describing this unit but it is from 2016. You can access it here. It is a bit outdated but it follows the same premise.

What is project-based learning?

I have a page on this website dedicated to project-based learning, you can access it here. Briefly, it is a student-centered pedagogical approach where students inquire and learn by engaging in relevant and authentic projects.

What was I searching for?

I wanted to demonstrate that PE has relevance in our current curriculum. PE needed to be more than sports and games, we do more than throw and kick, and get sweaty. I needed to demonstrate that kids are here to learn how to move competently and confidently, but they are also here to learn how to become 21st century thinkers and doers.

What are 21st century skills?

These are skills necessary for students to develop to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. Studies have shown that the ability for today’s learners to achieve these skills appears to have an impact on their future career success. There are many frameworks out there detailing what these skills are but the ones most often discussed are: 1. Critical thinking, 2. Creativity, 3. Metacognition, 4. Problem solving, 5. Collaboration, 6. Motivation, 7. Self-efficacy, 8. Conscientiousness, 9. Grit or perseverance. This is an extensive list and one that I would not be able to sufficiently research on my own. Therefore, I selected 4 to investigate: critical thinking, motivation, collaboration, and grit.

How did I conduct my research?

I followed an action research model where I filled two roles of being a researcher as well as being the practitioner/teacher. My practice was reflected upon regularly at certain intervals through a plan, act, evaluate, and rethink cycle. I also used a mixed methods approach where both qualitative (feelings, thoughts, interpreting language) and quantitative (numbers, counting, distinct measure) approaches were used.

What were my research questions?

To direct my research I created 4 questions:

  1. How can project-based learning be used to increase student engagement?

  2. How can project-based learning be used to encourage student motivation?

  3. What benefits arise from implementing project-based learning in physical education for students?

  4. What influence does project-based learning have on student behavior?

What data collection instruments did I use and what were my findings?

Research Question 1: How can project-based learning be used to increase student engagement?

  • The more engaged kids are the better the outcomes for the unit.

  • I used a weekly survey completed at the end of the final lesson of each week

  • Overall, 53% of the students had an excellent experience, 49% were eager to participate all the time, 50% stated they were very interested in the unit.

  • Semi-structured interviews of my sample used words such as 'very fun', 'enjoy', and 'excited' with 2 students using 'okay' as their description.

Research Question 2: How can project-based learning be used to encourage student motivation?

  • This was a difficult question to pinpoint since I primarily used semi-structured interviews and had to find patterns and themes in what the students said. Some examples of what students said were:

    • Like, I’m just thinking that, if I everyday train like that I would jump like 2 meters. I need to do like that so I sometimes do high knees at home... I do the other drills also, like the flight stretch.

    • PE makes me feel good because we do lots of fun things and it also PE, it’s not only for physical, it’s also for your life... Like in Track and Field, we learned how to be independent. And it also has tournaments to do teamwork and to do some plans to be ready

  • Overall, the sample I interviewed showed some degree of motivation to train during class as well as some training at home.

Research Question 3: What benefits arise from implementing project-based learning in physical education for students?

  • I used a written assessment rubric to help me develop students' critical thinking. One assessment required students to choose their events and to indicate key points for each event. The other assessment was to reflect on their performance and to create a training plan to assist improvement.

  • Despite my semi-structured interviews demonstrating evidence of critical thinking the written assessments showed some improvement in critical thinking but none of significance.

Research Question 4: What influence does project-based learning have on student behavior?

  • This question was explored by using structured observations, a grit questionnaire, and semi-structured interviews.

  • My structured observation was focused on collaboration, a 21st century key skill. I used the 3 criteria of effective collaboration: communication, cooperation, and responsiveness. Generally, students worked in their friendship groups, which is a double-edged sword. Overall, the students were engaged and motivated and collaborated well together. However, one student mentioned:

    • My training was not very good. Sometimes I was like playing with some of my friends.

  • However, another mentioned this:

    • Like (Student 1) helping part, like I learned how to let others help me, and also I will help others.

  • The Grit Questionnaire was used to, as the name suggests, grit. Grit is a combination of perseverance and resilience. The questionnaire I used was from Angela Duckworth and is readily available online. I only got my sample of 12 students to complete this rather than the grade 5 population. My sample completed this prior to the Track and Field unit began and then at it's completion.

  • The raw scores indicated that 75% of the sample had an improvement in their grit levels, however when statistically analyzed through a 1-tailed t-test, the high- and middle-ability sample group had significant improvements, whereas the low-ability sample improved but not significantly.

  • My semi-structured interviews demonstrated that grit was readily used and something that made sense to them now that they experienced what it feels like to 'not give up'.

    • “All the way from grade 1 and 2 here, I always heard that not give up, but I don’t really feel it. I don’t know what exactly, cause it’s kind of like a, just a concept to me. So, I really experienced it too, like throughout this unit.”

    • “And also, it (Track and Field unit) helped me to like, on other projects in grade 5 happening. So, also like the grade 5 business and to also like keep on going, never give up on our ideas.”

What are my overall findings?

Yes, project-based learning has indicated that it can work within a PE setting and that the skills that I was focused on did show some improvement. Although there were limitations to the study when the data was statistically analyzed. Grit scores were not significant for the low-ability group and critical thinking skills generally improved but not significantly. Collaboration was observed and there was evidence of it, however if I assigned groups just like in other units we do there would have been some richer data to analyze. This Track and Field unit was mainly an independent unit where the students freely chose how they worked, independently, in pairs, or in groups.


I highly encourage any teacher, PE teacher or any other teacher, to attempt a PBL unit. As I mentioned before, the world is run with projects, why not teach important skills and traits through a project? It just makes sense. If you want to look through some units where I used PBL, check out these links below:


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