Performance Tasks and PBL: The Link Between Process and 21st Century Skills

By David Reese, Ed. D.


In my role as Chief Academic Officer, I spend a large amount of time helping educators make decisions on strategies and tools to support authentic learning. These discussions usually start with curriculum alignment based upon an identified set of standards and move to tools that best serve the educator’s needs and the school’s mission.  I share this because these considerations are often the point at which the conversation would typically end. However, in my work with project-based learning (PBL) methods - this is the beginning.

I believe strongly in PBL but I often find that the final product of the project is viewed as the learning. This may be partially correct, but my belief is that process is how we provide students with opportunities to reach high levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and utilize important 21st-century skills.  This term has been around for quite some time, but yet can still be overlooked by some as a part of the teaching and learning process.


5 Domains of a future ready learner:


In the process of PBL, the student spends time working through the issue and/or challenge before even considering product development.  Consider this quote from Albert Einstein,

"If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes."

The process of working through a performance task often begins with inquiry. The inquiry may be driven by a target audience’s need to know or understand something, to help inform or persuade, or it may be driven by the need to solve a problem. Inquiry requires students to utilize critical thinking and problem-solving skills. They must work through the information provided to determine the proper questions to ask. These questions will drive the research process and may lead to the development of some answers (and probably more questions).

Conducting the research as part of a group can be an efficient method to gather the necessary information. In my work, I have found that a group of three can be the best strategy. It requires everyone to participate and maximizes the collaboration and communication processes. Students must gather the information and determine what matters. They must also determine what is appropriate and what is not. To accomplish this they must be digitally literate.  The American Library Association (ALA) defines digital literacy as: “The ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills”.

Once this information is gathered and potential solutions are brought forth, the team will need to decide how best to present this information to the target audience and what products should be created to demonstrate group understanding, as well as to inform or persuade the audience.

Creativity and innovation are beneficial in the development of products. Based upon available resources these products may be technological, created by hand or perhaps both. The group will need to work together to complete the products and share them with the audience. Often, the first presentation provides an opportunity to reflect on the product and make revisions based upon self-assessment and/or through feedback from the audience.

The final product(s) is the result of a combination of standards-based content applications and the utilization of 21st-century skills. The use of a performance task becomes a mechanism for students to address real-world issues replicating the content, skills, and processes that are needed beyond the schoolhouse walls. Connecting content and process is an efficient and engaging strategy to empower students to become future ready.


Dr. David L. Reese serves as Chief Academic Officer for Defined Learning. During the past twenty years, Dr. Reese has served K-12 students as a science teacher, Curriculum Specialist, and Central Office Administrator. He has taught Masters and Doctoral courses in all areas of curriculum and professional development leadership. His work focuses on providing students with engaging, relevant learning opportunities designed to encourage students to apply content from a local, national and international perspective.



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