How community projects can promote students’ critical thinking skills

Embedding project-based learning and youth participatory action research in degree courses can provide students with the critical-thinking skills that employers require

Tom Dobson's avatar
York St John University
14 Dec 2022
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
Community projects for students can help with critical thinking

You may also like

Using films to encourage reflection and critical thinking in your teaching
Advice on using films to support your teaching

A recent book from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) highlights how universities are not providing the majority of their students with the critical-thinking skills required by employers. Their study analysing data from the US, UK, Italy, Mexico, Finland and China found that 45 per cent of students were proficient in critical thinking, with only 20 per cent having an “emerging” talent.

Crucially, the OECD’s definition of critical thinking skills involves not only thinking, but the application of this thinking to real-life scenarios through the interrelated processes of “inquiring, imagining, doing and reflecting”. This definition echoes the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire’s concept of “critical consciousness”, whereby students inquire about and develop an understanding of society in order to take action and transform their communities.

While research from cognitive sciences focuses on how critical thinking skills should be taught through direct instruction, an argument should also be made that direct instruction it precisely what hinders students from developing critical thinking skills in the first place. How many university tutors have reflected upon the ways in which an outcome-driven school system has presented them with undergraduate students who want to be told what to do and what to think? How many university tutors have found themselves meticulously preparing their first-year undergraduate students for their assessments? How many university tutors have felt themselves complicit in perpetuating an absence of critical thinking through direct instruction?

If not direct instruction, what might be another solution to developing critical thinking in our students? The obvious answer is to think about other pedagogical approaches, which include students practically applying their learning and which develop the key competency of independent learning – an established prerequisite to critical thinking.

To go back to the OECD’s book, what is perhaps most surprising is that university courses that are more vocational seem to score worse in terms of developing students’ critical thinking skills. Of course, there are utilitarian reasons for this, with some of these courses leaning more towards training than education. But the fact that students on these courses will often benefit from the practical application of their learning through partnerships in their local community offers a clear opportunity for the take-up of pedagogies that have been proven to develop critical thinking skills.

Commissioned by Enactus UK, a non-profit organisation supporting young people in schools and universities to engage in social action and build sustainable community enterprises, I undertook a review of research into pedagogies used with 11- to 19-year-olds where the students engaged with their local communities on projects of their own devising. In the review, I found substantive evidence of positive outcomes when students had experienced one of two pedagogical approaches: project-based learning (PBL); and youth participatory action research (YPAR).

With both PBL and YPAR, students work in groups on projects of interest that will bring about positive change in their local communities. Examples of PBL from Enactus UK’s work with secondary school students through their NextGenLeaders programme include: Project Pawject, helping the homeless in Norwich through the selling of dog beds; Foodprint, providing people with affordable food that would otherwise go to waste in Nottingham; and Coding with Codex, delivering inclusive and affordable computer coding courses for neurodivergent learners.

For each of these projects, students work through processes with a facilitator in a way that mirrors the OECD’s definition of critical thinking skills: they “imagine and inquire”, developing and researching a problem and thinking about beneficiaries and barriers involved; they take action, working in partnership with local businesses and third sector organisations; and they receive feedback on their actions, helping them reflect and set actions and targets for the future development of their projects.

YPAR is differentiated from PBL in that it also involves the explicit teaching of research methods to students. This formal understanding of research methods helps students gather data to develop their problem statement as well as design a project that will impact positively upon their target beneficiaries. To date, YPAR is relatively underused in the UK and tends to take place in the US where students work specifically with and for marginalised communities.

My review included 25 research articles, with the vast majority of this research taking place in the US. Of these 25 articles, 10 provide clear evidence of how PBL and YPAR develop students’ critical thinking skills. The vast majority of the studies included in the review were undertaken with students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with evidence demonstrating how these pedagogies impact positively on social mobility and persistence in higher education.

A study by Teach First shows that one in three disadvantaged young people are not in sustained work or education five years after GCSEs, compared with one in seven of their wealthier peers; another study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies evidences how children from disadvantaged backgrounds have unequal access to, and less success in, the education system. With the Sutton Trust highlighting how universities are beginning to become key drivers for social mobility, it can be argued that the use of PBL and YPAR in higher education will further improve the social mobility of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Given that most university courses already develop students’ knowledge of research methods and require them to undertake an independent project towards the end of their course, embedding PBL in Level 4 modules and then YPAR in Level 5 and 6 modules would be one way of facilitating student progression in developing critical thinking skills in line with the frameworks for higher education.

Given also that most social science courses involve partnerships with local business or third sector organisations, and that most natural sciences courses are driven by the pursuit of knowledge to improve people’s lives and the environment, the use of PBL and YPAR should be seen as highly feasible and a way of meaningfully developing partnerships and the application of knowledge.

Embedding PBL and YPAR in university courses involves a two-prong approach. At course management level, select modules at each level would need to be written with more open, competency-based learning outcomes that could be met in different ways by different students, depending on the nature of the social action or social enterprise they undertook. At module level, individual tutors would require professional development to set up and facilitate the use of PBL and YPAR with their students. It’s never just a matter of letting the students “get on with it”. Instead, PBL and YPAR are pedagogies that require constant evaluation and refinement.

For those interested, the Buck Institute of Education’s framework for high-quality PBL is a good starting point.

Tom Dobson is professor of education at York St John University, UK. He is a former secondary school teacher whose research focuses on creative pedagogies, and this article is drawn from his research with Enactus UK into the benefits of students driving their own community-based projects. 

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site