Staying relationship-focused in a project-based world

Incorporating the important benefits of relationships and life skills into movements towards developing 21st century skills and project-based learning.

Current trends in out-of-school learning, enrichment and classroom learning are focusing on building 21st century skills and taking a project-based approach. These approaches are important to prepare young people for a rapidly changing world; to build transferable skillsets that prepare youth for jobs and environments that might not exist yet. Still, research tells us that building meaningful relationships and life skills are critical pieces of positive youth development. As with any new movement in education, how do you incorporate the new while retaining the clear benefits of previous approaches? How can project-based learning still build relationships with caring adults and emphasize life skills?

These overlapping trends – whether it is project-based, STEAM, the Maker Movement or 21st century learning – have some common threads. Essentially, all of these emphasize the need for young people to explore a topic without specific directions and typically in a small group. This approach is intended to build a young person’s ability to collaborate and create new ideas and solutions rather than recreate an experiment, craft or concept step-by-step. Often introductory concepts – laws of physics, color theory, math concepts – can either be provided at the beginning or interjected as they are discovered during the project. In turn, young people learn how to self-regulate, think critically, function creatively and guide their own learning; skills that are necessary for working and living in an increasing complex world.

Arguably, the key to the success of this model is ensuring youth development benefits of building healthy relationships and exploring life skills still incorporate seamlessly. Research in “The Mentoring Effect: Young Peoples Perspectives on the Outcomes and Availability of Mentoring” points to the positive youth development outcomes of having a caring, committed adult in planned mentoring. Some of these outcomes complement those sought through inquiry-based project approaches. In addition, building life skills and intentionally discussing those skills tie directly to a young person’s development.

The strength of any program or approach will come from building upon the benefits of relationships rather than becoming overly focused on projects. Michigan State University Extension’s 4-H Youth Development strives for this balance in its programming. Michigan 4-H Mentoring, traditionally focused on the relationship components of planned mentoring, is exploring the incorporation of projects through the Michigan 4-H Tech Wizards program. Expanding upon this topic, “A tale of two projects” looks at how group dynamics and relationships enhance a project experience. Based on discussions of experiences in programming with 4-H program coordinator Jodi Wrzesinski, “Relationships and projects: Developing recommended practices” and “Relationships and projects: Next steps” will start to outline what is working in the field.

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