Project Based Learning and the Australian Curriculum ‘General Capabilities’ (Part 3)

This is the third part of my posts on the Australian Curriculum’s General Capabilities and Project Based Learning (PBL). The first part is here. The second part is here. What is PBL? Read about it here.

Well it’s taken me ages to get to this last post. School and life has been hectic. Isn’t it always? I intended for the three posts to be completed for SDD Term 1 and it is now the end of Week 2. Luckily these General Capabilities are so straight forward and everyone always covers them with their classes, right? Oh, wait … no. That’s NOT the truth. Whilst Ethical Understanding and Intercultural Understanding are essential capabilities for awesome humans, they can so easily be overlooked when teachers feel pressured to prioritise content.


According to the AC website, ‘Ethical understanding involves students in building a strong personal and socially oriented ethical outlook that helps them to manage context, conflict and uncertainty, and to develop an awareness of the influence that their values and behaviour have on others’. This is pretty important stuff, right? I mean, in high school we’re often working with young people who simply lack resilience or a deep appreciation for their own values and how these can impact those around them. Why? Because they are young people finding their place within the world. But maybe it’s because they don’t understand or can’t appreciate the relevance of what they are doing RIGHT NOW in their school lives. To teenagers, school can often seem like they’re in a holding pen waiting until they’re given the chance to be morally responsible. In order to support our students to develop ‘personal values and attributes such as honesty, resilience, empathy and respect for others’ (Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians) we need to create learning experiences that foster and nurture these values and attributes.

Project based learning is about problem finding and problem solving. Not the problems in the back of the book, or the imaginary problems identified in a novel, but the REAL problems of our world that need addressing. It is in the driving question of a project that we see the centrality of problems. These problems might be based in the class (How can we design a learning space that supports the needs of all learners?), school (Can we, as students, prevent bullying in our school?), local community, (How can we educate our community about the impact that individuals’ decisions have on others?), national (Can we create a short film that will change politician’s attitudes to climate change?) or global (How can poetry be used to inspire people to donate money to combat the global food crisis?). The best problems, of course, are those identified by students through their own personal experience or through their own in-depth inquiry. To help students with their problem-finding, you could use this sentence from the AC as stimulus for discussion and brainstorming: Complex issues require responses that take account of ethical considerations such as human rights and responsibilities, animal rights, environmental issues and global justice. It simply is NOT enough to have our students writing persuasive speeches or research articles or poems about these issues, handing them in to teacher for a grade and ticking a box. We MUST empower our young people to actually actively take part in making a contribution to their world – to truly contribute their ideas to solving complex problems.This means ensuring that their learning has a public audience.

Of course, we can’t expect on class doing PBL to solve the world’s problems – but many hands make light work. According to the AC, Technologies bring local and distant communities into classrooms, exposing students to knowledge and global concerns as never before. With the capacity to bring others into our classroom vis Skype, edmodo, social media etc, we have the capacity to work together towards incremental changes to our somewhat shitty world. Giving students a taste of what their own personal capacity is, to develop their understanding of themselves as ethical human beings, is really central to our jobs as teachers.

Here’s a video of me talking about the importance of fostering Ethical Understanding in the young people in our care:


One of the reasons I love the Internet is because it has made our world a little bit smaller. It’s made it easier for me to appreciate the shared nature of humanity and opened my eyes to the importance of connecting and collaborating with people all over the world. However, I do often ask myself whether that’s just me idealising the Internet. Chatting to my students and observing how they use the web, it seems to me that maybe it’s not actually being used in a way that bashes down contextual and cultural boundaries, bringing about a truly global community. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I know that my students are connecting with other young people from all around the world – especially those who are gamers. But is this reinforcing cultural divides as they seek out others with the same or similar cultural contexts to themselves? For the AC, intercultural understanding assists young people to become responsible local and global citizens, equipped through their education for living and working together in an interconnected world.

Creating learning experiences that provide students with the opportunity to connect and collaborate with students from backgrounds different from their own truly does nurture intercultural understanding. During PBL, students develop essential 21st century skills as they establish connections with other schools or with experts from outside of school. PBL provides the students with the the ability to relate to and communicate across cultures at local, regional and global levels. Currently my Year 8 class is connecting with a small rural school (North Star Public School) in northern NSW in their attempt to answer the driving question What can we learn from the life stories of others? This project requires them the engage with a text that explores the life story of an individual from a culture very different from their own – for my class they’re learning about the peoples indigenous to North America and learning about the impact of colonisation on these peoples. They are also connecting via twitter, edmodo and skype with the North Star students to share their own life stories and in doing so they are cultivating values and dispositions such as curiosity, care, empathy, reciprocity, respect and responsibility, open-mindedness and critical awareness, and supports new and positive intercultural behaviours. The project covers significant content for both classes as they are actively engaging in their wider world and discovering something new about others and themselves.

There are many more learning experiences such as the one I have outline above that my students have enjoyed over the years because of project based learning. Using this approach to learning truly opens our eyes, as teachers, to the potential connections our young people can make with others. It doesn’t have to be connections from outside of the school either. At my school, we have a number of students from Japan, Korea and China, who spend one to two years studying at our school. My colleague ran a wonderful project at the beginning of the year where his Year 12 students planned and ran the introduction activities for our new international students. This was a awesome opportunity for all of the students involved to learn about other cultures and it gave them the chance to identify culture and develop respect. My goal for this year is to have one of my classes to work on a project with a class with Aboriginal students. I recently discovered the 8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning and am very keen to design a project that incorporates all 8 ways because I believe they are the ways my students learn also. Working at a school on the Northern Beaches in Sydney isolates my students from the potential to truly develop their understanding of the cultures of the original inhabitants of this country. It’s time that I use my PBL skills and the technologies we have available to break down these cultural barriers and create awesome learning experiences for both classes. I just have to find the right school to connect with!

As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of the AC’s General Capabilities. I think it is essential that we continue to value our young people as the future of our world and support them as best we can to develop or strengthen these important attributes of awesome humans. I truly do feel that an approach to learning such as project based learning that is experiential, authentic and engaging provides our learners with the BEST opportunity to hone these very important values and attributes.

7 thoughts on “Project Based Learning and the Australian Curriculum ‘General Capabilities’ (Part 3)

  1. This has been a valuable series, thanks so much for your insights Bianca!

    I agree with you that the General Capabilities need to be at the forefront of our ‘planning minds’, and get disappointed when they are being ignored. You know there is actually no policy (that I have found) around what proportion of our class work should be focussed on developing ‘capabilities’ as opposed to ‘content’ knowledge/skills. What would our yearly plans look like if we started with the GCs to develop inquiries, then pulled in Content Descriptors to align with the various projects/quests etc.? Pretty lively, I think!

    The virtues of a PBL approach for engaging with the GCs is pretty clear huh? You have reminded me of the importance of finding out about students’ interests. PS The North Star project sounds so exciting!!

  2. I’m such a fan of PBL and predominantly used it when I was teaching.

    I’m now in a position like yours – first year in an official leadership position. I’m trying to move teachers away from teaching skills in isolation and toward picking apart projects into the essential necessary skills required for project completion. It’s a different way of thinking.

    One of my greatest pieces of new learning is that teams of teachers need differentiated instruction to understand and implement the General Capabilities as catalysts for projects. With one group, I’ve had them look at an existing project and “unpack” the skills to see the multiple subjects and capabilities required. With another group, I helped them put together a series of individual lessons into a coherent project that would be meaningful for the students. With another group, I coached them to think in terms of _why_ we are teaching a particular set of lessons (beyond the obvious future NAPLANs).

    One unit at a time… Are you going to the Jay McTighe workshops on Unit Planning?

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