Shake It Up: Get the Most out of PBL with the 4 Cs

September 10, 2014
Liza Stark
Foundation/Non-Profit Member
Quest To Learn
New York, NY
CATEGORIES In the Classroom

Employing 21st-century skills can feel like a nebulous concept in the classroom. Distilled down to the four Cs -- creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking -- these are essential tools students must cultivate to thrive in the complex, challenge-riddled contemporary world. Students must be prepared for careers that have yet to be invented. They must be prepared to experiment and to take risks in order to innovate. Despite this, many teachers feel that integrating these skills into their planning practice detracts from covering traditional content.

At Quest to Learn, we have found quite the opposite. Intentionally designing 21st-century skills into inquiry-based approaches like project-based learning deepens student learning and has the potential to transform teacher practice. We use a game-like learning approach that takes its pedagogical roots from project-based learning. Students are dropped into complex problem spaces that require unlocking new knowledge and skills to solve.

For example, on the first day of a recent seventh-grade ELA mission (the Quest to Learn term for a unit of study) called “Shakes It Up,” students listened eagerly as their teacher divulged details of the next trimester-long project. Their goal was to make Shakespeare more accessible for a contemporary audience. Students would be working in groups to remix Macbeth using digital media tools, enlivening passages from a centuries-old text using contemporary mashup practices.

During the eight weeks of the “Shakes It Up” mission, students had many opportunities to develop 21st-century skills as well as deepen content knowledge. Students first had to understand the language in order to translate it and make it their own. They used choral reading and improv games to explore and activate the text. Then they analyzed the role of the audience to discuss how people interpret meaning based on the way it is communicated. Students created causal maps to examine a play as a system and understand the relationship among its parts. After mastering their chosen passage, students worked collaboratively to create their own interpretation: a remixed version, a digital audio, video, or graphic mashup to exhibit at the student-run Shakespeare festival.

As our curriculum teams brainstorm missions and backwards design lessons, we have found that asking the following questions helps us surface the four Cs naturally:

Is there a powerful “need to know?”
What is their explicit reason for learning? What are they working to solve? What is the big question they are faced with? How is it connected to the real world? Is it relevant to the student?

If students are faced with a compelling need to know, they will want to think critically to enhance their understanding of the problem. This sets the foundation for engagement of the four Cs throughout the project.

Are students taking on authentic roles to solve real-world problems?
Are students working together or individually? How do you build in time for feedback and peer-to-peer learning? Is the problem connected to their interests and daily life?

If the problem feels relevant, students will seek connections between ideas and use them to creatively design new solutions. Giving each student a specific role in that process prompts them to learn how to communicate effectively both with their peers and with the audience they're addressing.

Are you building in structures for student-led inquiry?
Are students being guided towards a solution through exploration, question-building, and experimentation? What are some scaffolded learning opportunities you can design to help students ask good questions? Are you building student choice into your design?

Having students guide the learning and form the questions by which they will learn demands critical thinking. It allows the students to own their learning and helps them refine the process that works best for them.

Is there a meaningful integration of technology?
Does the technology you're using complement the learning? Have you thoughtfully reflected on all possible digital or non-digital tools that would support student learning? Will you offer students a choice in the technology they can use?

Just because you're using tech does not mean your students are practicing 21st-century skills. In fact, offering them a choice of tools is a much better option for exercising their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills while encouraging their self-expression. Have them decide and defend what the right tool for the job is.

I challenge you to see the four Cs not as another piece to add, but as a new tool, a power boost, and an additional lens to help you reframe and reflect on student learning -- and, equally important, your own craft as an educator.

PBL | 4 Cs


John Larmer

Nice post, Liza, I loved hearing about the "Shakes it Up" project - are there any examples of the student work you could share? I also liked how you use a "game-like learning approach that takes its pedagogical roots from project-based learning" and I'd love to hear more details about what students do in those kinds of projects.


Do you know of the Buck Institute book I edited, written mainly by Suzie Boss - PBL for 21st Century Success: Teaching Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication, and Creativity? I think you'd like it!

Liza Stark
Foundation/Non-Profit Member
Quest To Learn
New York, NY

Thanks John!

I'm a big fan of the Buck Institute, especially the work yall are doing around PBL and 21st century skills. I have not heard of the book, but I will definitely check it out! I just confirmed sharing some student work this afternoon, so it should be up soon. In the meantime, here is a more (actually very) detailed explanation of student work:

So the games and game-like learning experiences we design act on two different levels: the larger unit, or mission, and the contextualized activity with a specific learning goal pertaining to that mission. Through the latter, students build the skills they need to solve the problem posed by the mission. In the example above, the teacher wanted the students to understand plays as systems, from the rules of iambic pentameter to audience-performer interaction, in order to adapt Shakespeare for new audiences using new digital tools.

That being said, she had a lot of scaffolding to do before she could have students even begin to define this problem. Students played improv games and performed group choral readings in small groups to activate the text while practicing reading for comprehension as a class. They played Guess My Tone, a charades style game in which students practice conveying and reading tone through performance. One student pulls a card from a "line deck" containing a line from a Shakespearean monologue or soliloquy. She performs that line using as many cards as possible from the "tone" deck. The objective of the game is for the audience to correctly guess the tones conveyed. These hands-on and embodied activities catalyzed deeper questions around how to interpret Shakespeare, both in his own time and now. Moving from performer to critic, students examined the theater space, analyzing stage directions and their impact on audience interpretation. They created causal maps to extract leverage points articulating what makes a scene powerful for an audience. From these, students generated thesis statements to argue which combination of elements had the deepest impact.

Grappling with these questions of authorial intent and audience presence allowed students to slide easily into the role of designer and think deeply about what would engage their peers with the text. Students choose the passage they wanted to use and began researching different mashup forms. They brainstormed and storyboarded their mashups, then quickly prototyped different versions using skills in video, sound, and image editing from their digital media arts class. Students choose which medium to work with and whether to work independently or collaboratively. Lots of embedded student choice and ways of showing understanding and skill acquisition.

I would be more than happy to speak more in depth about the work the Institute of Play does at Quest and elsewhere - seems like we have a lot in common!