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Project-Based Learning: Teaching about Social Justice Issues

by Neil Finney

Consider the following as our success criteria:

-Students united under one common cause and goal.
-Learning about a social justice issue in a global manner.
-Working collaboratively to make the learning “real.”
-Crafting the perfect argument
-Voicing their opinions

Through the use of project-based learning, my intermediate geography class was able to put a real “face” on a global economic problem – poverty. The task was to participate in a debate, during which, students from each side would try to convince me – the judge – of the merits of their team’s argument.

The question: Should Canada raise its level of foreign aid to other countries (focus on Africa)? Why or why not?

To begin, students chose which side of the debate they were interested in supporting. In their “teams” a leader was selected. The leader was responsible for dividing up the workload (i.e., researching information, finding sources, creating questions, writing an introductory statement, selecting a YouTube video clip to showcase). Students worked in peer groups to learn more about the level of foreign aid Canada contributes to other countries (focus on Africa) and make a case as to whether this amount should be raised or stay the same.

The debate was a forum for learning from each other on a topic, about which the students would generally have very little background knowledge. They were engaged, passionate, and most of all, globally-minded during the point-counterpoint that took place in grade 8 geography class.

The result: the class was buzzing with engagement and awareness.

As a follow-up to this debate, we focused on an article which outlined how many African countries want support and education – to develop the infrastructure. Students seemed to find it easier to form a point-of-view on the issue; now that they had attained the background knowledge from the debate to access prior knowledge.

Giving students a voice for a global issue allows them to develop empathy, leadership and perspective. Learning about the world outside classroom walls and of things outside the traditional textbook can bring relevance and value to the learning. Through a project-based learning approach, students can learn in stages from inception to the presentation. Building from each other, they scaffolded the learning for their peers and used a team-building approach to address the “big question” – should Canada raise its level of foreign aid to African countries?


Share a story with us about how you used project-based learning to address an important global issue. What kinds of things worked best when it came to “sharing” the learning?


During Neilʼs 9 years of teaching experience, he has taught in London, England; Ontario; public and private schools; elementary and secondary; junior; intermediate; core french; developmental skills; and now junior gifted (grades 4,5,6). He is a Reading Specialist that has been incorporating technology in his practice consistently throughout his career. Neil has recently published his first book entitled “Ignite. Incite. Inspire.” – Examining 21st Century Issues in Education, which is a collection of teaching articles and posts written from January to December 2011.

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