PBL Prepares Girls For Their Future

Part of a series of blog posts on Project-Based Learning. A collaboration between Hudson Lab School and Portfolio School.

From my college lit courses, my takeaway was that male authors historically published young and often while female authors analyzed, refined, reflected, perfected, and eventually published their works given enough encouragement. As a female, I was exasperated by their self-doubt. I could also relate.

In The Confidence Code for Girls, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman discuss how women and men approach confidence differently and how that difference typically serves women well at school, but then holds them back in the workplace. “Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect.” Ask any woman. This disparity is real. It’s not new. And it’s not going to change on its own.

Girls start school with a developmental edge over boys and they frequently receive praise for their ability to follow directions and their perfect behavior. As the seeds of perfectionism grow, many girls strive to over-deliver, which sets off a negative cycle where they can’t live up to their own overblown standards. In the current model of school, these traits work great. On many measures, girls outperform boys throughout school. According to Carol Dweck, Stanford psychology professor and author of The Growth Mindset, “If life were one long grade school, women would be the undisputed rulers of the world.”

And then puberty happens. Until the age of 12, the confidence of boys and girls are about the same. Once puberty sets in, girls’ confidence plummets and the average girl becomes far less confident than the average boy. In research by Kay and Shipman, boys were more apt to describe themselves as “confident, strong, adventurous, and fearless” while girls focused on “setting impossibly high standards for themselves. In their efforts to please everyone, achieve more, and follow rules, many girls are actually nurturing traits in themselves that set them up to struggle in the long run.” From the ages of 12 to 13, girls who say they are not allowed to fail rise from 18 to 45 percent according to polling data.

Meanwhile, risk-taking, failing, persevering and mastery are the key components for building confidence. It’s a well-known formula played out in every hero journey, yet it has no role in our current education system. If students make a mistake, it could threaten their GPA or class standing. For perfectionists, failing is not an option. Taking risks is not condoned. And then these well-meaning, hard-working, rule-following women enter the workforce hindered by all the traits that helped them succeed in school.

Kay and Shipman point to evidence that acclimating girls to more risk-taking and failure in the middle school years makes a difference. As parents and educators of girls, we can change the playing field by reimagining school to socialize girls to excel in the real world and not just at school.

Project-based learning, or PBL, prepares students for an uncertain future by setting up a structure of experimentation and allowing students to fail. PBL helps students to develop calculated risk-taking skills and directly counters the fear of failure that perpetuates the perfectionism tropes and confidence gap for girls and boys alike. PBL redefines learning as a messy, dynamic, interdisciplinary, action-oriented process that is iterative with many possible solutions rather than one correct answer. It aligns educational metrics with the greater world outside of schools where essential skills like time management, public speaking, leadership, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration have greater significance than test-taking skills or rote memorization.

My husband and I believed in PBL so much that we started a PBL school in Westchester. While our older daughter was “thriving” in a traditional learning environment, she didn’t actually care about what she was studying as long as she was receiving praise and outperforming her peers. She was well on her way down the perfectionist track, and by moving her to a project-based learning environment, we moved the goalposts. While she knew how to complete simple assignments correctly, now she had to consider how to improve upon her work with follow-up iterations. While she knew how to deliver the correct answers in class, now she had to figure out how to form her own opinions and justify them through public debate. While she knew how to figure out the answers designed by teachers, now she had to learn from her own mistakes and create her own unique pathways in the absence of a single right answer because in the real world, there’s always more than one solution to a problem and none of them are ever perfect. While she could do math well above her grade level, now she had to learn how to collaborate with others using math, science, language and art to reach a common goal. It has been fabulous to watch her transition over time. It turns out when you change the game, the players adapt.

At schools like Hudson Lab School and Portfolio School, PBL prepares all students female and male, but I would argue it’s particularly important for girls hardwired to always try their best. PBL prepares girls to succeed in both the classroom and the boardroom by giving them the confidence to take risks and fail and it socializes them to excel in a magnificently imperfect world where confidence matters more than competence.