Project-Based Learning: Culture-Making for Shalom Communities

Project-Based Learning

A Vision for Education

Education reform has been a hot topic in North America for many years. In 2011, Barack Obama focused his State of the Union address on America’s need to “Win the Future.” The speech highlights education as a primary pillar in a global competition for dominance: “If we want to win the future . . . then we also have to win the race to educate our kids,” he says. Education as competitive nation-building is a vision for schooling in North America. We need to give students an exceptional education that gets them into college or university so that they can self-actualize their dreams and strengthen our global economic influence. How does this vision compare with the mission and vision of Christian schools?

In the fall of the same year as Obama’s “Win the Future” address, approximately a thousand Christian school educators in Ontario were gathered at Edifide’s annual education conference, listening to Andy Crouch talk out of his book Culture Making. Crouch encouraged us to believe in our ability to participate in God’s desire for cultural flourishing in our role as educators.

At the heart of the cultural mandate found in Genesis is the desire for shalom, “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight” (Plantinga 10). The cultural mandate is the invitation to go out into the world and participate in creatively filling it with the glorious presence of God through our culture making. If our own kingdom building results in Babel, God’s kingdom building is realized in the beautiful coming together of diverse shalom communities. We participate in a narrative that moves from a garden of trees, through our own brokenness, back to a glorious city where the river will be lined with trees whose leaves will provide “healing for the nations” (Revelations 22:2). It is a beautiful vision, not of global economic competition, but of multicultural social flourishing.

What does learning within a vision for shalom look like in a school? How do we form learning communities for kingdom culture making? Too often, as educators like John Hull have identified, our schools do not pursue a pedagogy that attempts to realize shalom communities both in and beyond our school walls. How can we pursue a learning pedagogy that helps foster learning habits of resilience, competence, reflection, creativity, and compassion: lifelong learning habits that attempt to address the wounds of our communities and earth through social flourishing? (Hamilton District Christian High has named these five qualities as the desired habits of their graduates:

Project-Based Learning: Where Pedagogy Meets Vision

The power of the biblical narrative and the clarity of the invitation to make culture for shalom make project-based learning (PBL) a compelling pedagogy. PBL roots communal learning in culturally-embedded projects. In PBL, students don’t sit passively receiving content to regurgitate for a grade; they are actively involved in envisioning responses and products for actual cultural purpose. Often starting from an entry event and driving question, students pursue learning as an answer to the initial question by means of tangibly producing something and presenting their product and learning to a real audience. Project questions often pursue an understanding of culture for shalom by inviting students to face real cultural concerns and to implement their solutions. In their work with the Buck Institute, a leading organization of PBL, Larmer and Mergendoller highlight eight essential elements for project based learning as an introduction to it:

  1. Significant Content: The project is planned to address and uncover important content that is at the heart of a discipline’s enduring understandings.
  2. A Need to Know: The introduction to the project creates meaning for pursuing the project and a desire to learn important content.
  3. A Driving Question: An essential question focuses the inquiry and purpose of the project.
  4. Student Voice and Choice: Students are given opportunities to direct their own response to what the project is and what it will produce.
  5. Twenty-First-Century Skills: Communication, collaboration, innovation, and critical thinking are all highlighted as crucial skills to develop for meaningful cultural participation.
  6. Inquiry and Innovation: Once students have clarified their project details, they need to engage in more specific research and learning in order to accomplish their goals with a high degree of success.
  7. Feedback and Revision: An important project experience is for students to recognize that excellence involves a process of production, feedback, reflection, and revision. This feedback loop can involve peers and teachers, but also other experts.
  8. A Publicly-Presented Product: If the assumption is that the student project work will produce a high quality, useful product, then it is essential that the product be shared with a community that might be interested in it. This final step of presentation not only helps students clarify what they’ve learned and accomplished, but also provides the opportunity for their authentic product to have real value culturally.

(You can visit the Buck Institute online. They even offer free online courses in PBL.) Perhaps it is most helpful to consider a few examples. Let me highlight a few projects from my own classroom experience as an English teacher.

A Media Project: “My Just Because”

In a grade 11 media class, students learn key concepts of media texts. In a traditional pedagogy, students would be given the content, and at the end of the unit, they might have a test and/or a media project where they need to show their competence. The test or project is given to the teacher for a grade. In the PBL model, students would first be invited to make a media text with a tangible purpose and then begin learning the key concepts to help them accomplish their project. The project might open with a driving question such as, “How do you make a video that helps someone accomplish a dream?” The teacher can still teach content (“need to know”) and even test it, but the real focus is on the products that students are making in preparation for their presentation. Perhaps students choose to make video promotions for a local organization or school club.

Two of my students, Jocelyn and Katelynn, chose to make a video for their friend Kat that highlighted her involvement in a Hamilton ministry for children. They entered the video in a competition called “My Just Because.” (You can see the video and contest page here: <>. If that website closes, you can see the video itself here: <>.) The video won a city-wide competition, and Kat and her mom went to Uganda to learn more about care for at-risk youth. The video is an incredible combination of technical excellence and kingdom vision. The entire school played a part in helping Kat win the opportunity to develop her gifts, and she was moved by the way her friends and school helped her deepen her love for children. Because the project involved the entire school, the whole community was able to celebrate learning habits for social flourishing together.

Philosophy and Literature in Dialogue

Sometimes the project can be a bit bigger and involve collaboration. In PBL, student writing should not be seen merely as something to assess for learning and a grade. Student writing can be important expressions that can benefit other students and the community beyond the school. (The Buck Institute calls this “authentic literacy,” and they offer a fantastic webinar that links authentic literacy to the eight essential elements of PBL: <>. They also offer numerous other webinars in other subject areas. <>.)

Mobius, the first edition of our book project, is a collaboration between a senior philosophy class and creative writing class that believes our philosophical and creative writing in combination can help shape the way others view human flourishing. In addition to the unit question, “How do we make a good book?” we asked students to pursue a response to one of the following driving questions:

  • What does it mean to be human?
  • What does it mean to live a good life?
  • What role does beauty play in life?
  • How do we create a just society?

We were confident that these questions might provide the students a great starting point for writing either their philosophical or creative summative projects. We are on our second edition of the book. (We used an online publishing site called Blurb. Blurb lets you create and buy/sell copies of your text on demand at the same cost per book regardless of quantity. The first edition of the book can be previewed and purchased at this link: <>.) The students have worked hard to develop their technical excellence and writing abilities. They have visited publishing experts, they use social media to collaborate and promote the book, and they hope the book has a deep and wide impact on the school community and beyond. Just having gone through the project of publishing the book has been an incredible learning experience. Anna Marie said this about her experience in the project:

I really enjoyed discovering the imagination and depth that a lot of the writers of Mobius included in their writings. The most important thing that I learned in being a part of the project is patience. . . . I learned a lot about Blurb and how the program works. I learned that collaborating as a class is a really amazing thing to do because I love the outcome of our work.

Her brief comment indicates that she has learned from her peers, gained technical excellence in publishing design, and experienced the importance of the habits highlighted earlier: resilience, compassion, competence, creativity, and reflection.

Our People, Our Story

As students learn what they need to know in order to create excellent products for a real purpose, they not only deepen their head knowledge, they create habits for lifelong learning that can lead to action. Our grade 10 English project also attempts to accomplish this vision in a number of ways. We asked the following driving question: “Who are the heroes of our community, and how can we share their stories?” The heroic qualities that students identified were courage, bravery, sacrifice, joy, and strength in the midst of suffering, playfulness, and a few others. Then we identified the people we know whose lives embodied these qualities—members of our families, school community, and larger community. A number of students identified Kat (from the media project described above) as a hero based on what they had experienced in her story the year before.

Second, we needed to learn how to share those stories well. So, we learned about key elements of both writing and presenting, and what it takes to plan and host a dynamic event. We wanted an audience for our presentation because we wanted to introduce them to our shared heroes. A school-wide exhibition day created the perfect opportunity to share our presentations and heroic qualities with our larger community. A student helped name the event “Our People: Our Story,” hoping that people would be inspired by our presentations to also embody lives of good character. Another student emceed the entire event and students shared examples of lives of courage. Some of our heroes were there for our celebration and felt honored to be presented. We gave audience members buttons in the hope that the button would help them remember the qualities that we had inspired in them from our heroes. On reflecting on the experience, students regretted that we didn’t have even more people at the event and the opportunity to have more students share their work. It was clear that they believed what they had created had actual cultural value. They also felt that they themselves were inspired by their classmates’ presentations.

Education for Social Flourishing

I opened this article with a comparison of two educational moments in 2011: the State of the Union address and a Christian education conference. My contrasting of those moments might seem to suggest that I see the systems in competition, but that isn’t true. Both public and Christian schools are interested in social flourishing, and the rise in popularity of PBL in both systems is something to celebrate. If PBL embodies a beautiful vision like social flourishing, to see it implemented widely in multiple systems of education in numerous countries seems to me all the more evidence of God’s desire to fill all of our diverse cultures with shalom. It is a joy that I can collaborate in my growth in PBL with a wide support of educators, both with my own staff and around the world through social platforms like eCurriculum (<> has a group of 130+ educators in the “PBL Discovery and Exploration” group), Edmodo (<> After creating a login, browse “communities” and join 15,800+ colleagues in the “PBL” group), or Twitter (<> Use hash tags like #pbl or #pblchat to join conversations and find countless resources).

How do we know the value of PBL? We see the results in student products and them learning to speak for themselves. (If you’d like more reading on the effectiveness of PBL, BIE offers a number of studies that promote its success as a learning pedagogy:>.) When a number of our staff went to a PBL-focused school and asked students to express what they were doing, my colleagues were amazed at the way students of that public school were expressing our mission of social flourishing more clearly than we do. I’m profoundly blessed to participate in what the students dream and accomplish in projects like the three above. My own learning curve in both implementing PBL and sharing ownership of curricular experiences with my classes has led to a deep appreciation for my students’ gifts and God’s faithfulness to me and to culture through them.

I’m convinced that project-based learning is a practical pedagogy that provides teachers and students the opportunity to deepen their own gifts and experience God’s desire for social flourishing. Teacher resources from organizations like the Buck Institute provide clear support in developing projects for any grade and discipline. In both their project work and their reflections about their learning, students share a sense of joy and excitement about what they have accomplished. Let me urge you to believe in your own learning too. Consider creating a learning community with your whole staff or with just a few colleagues and support each other in the beautiful risk of pushing your own practice through PBL. Perhaps a driving question for your own learning could be, “How do I plan and implement a unit using PBL?” My hope is that your experience with it, in both the success and failure, might lead to a deepening of your own participation in social flourishing and growth.

Works Cited

  • Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
  • Hull, John. “Aiming for Christian Education, Settling for Christians Educating: The Christian School’s Replication of the Public School’s Paradigm.” Christian Scholar’s Review 2003: 203–23.
  • Larmer, John and John R. Mergendoller. “8 Essentials for Project-Based Learning.” March 2012. The Buck Institute. Web. 8 December 2012 <>.
  • Obama, Barack. “The State of the Union Address 2011 Full Text and Video.” 25 January 2011. The Huffington Post. Web. 8 December 2012 <>.
  • Plantinga Jr., Cornelius. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.
  • Stronks, G. G. and D. Blomberg. A Vision with a Task: Christian Schooling for Responsive Discipleship. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 1993.