Project-Based Learning: A Short History
Projects are what keeps the world turning. Almost any undertaking — whether it’s the launch of a space shuttle, the creation of a marketing campaign, the conduct of a clinical experiment, or the staging of an art exhibit — may be made possible by a multidisciplinary team of people working together to achieve success.
When the project approach takes root in the classroom, students are allowed to participate in real-world problem solving as well as classroom learning. Instead of simply learning about nutrition in the abstract, kids serve as consultants to help their school establish a healthier cafeteria menu selection. Instead of learning about the past through a textbook, students take on the role of historians by creating a video about an event that had a significant impact on their community.
It has never been easier to stay on top of the most important developments in the field of learning sciences. Discover our new monthly newsletter, The Research Is In, which will be available in the coming weeks.
Sign me up for the newsletter End of newsletter promotion.
The concept of project-based learning, particularly when it is infused with technology, may appear and feel like a 21st-century concept, yet it is built on a centuries-old basis.
A solid foundation is essential.
Learning by doing was advocated by Confucius and Aristotle from the beginning of time. Learning through asking, investigation, and critical thinking are all tactics that Socrates modeled, and they are still highly important in today’s project-based learning settings. When we fast forward to John Dewey, a 20th-century American educational theorist, and philosopher, we hear a resounding endorsement for learning that is anchored in experience and motivated by student engagement in the classroom. According to Dewey, the traditional concept of the learner as a passive recipient of knowledge was incorrect (and the teacher as the transmitter of a static body of facts). Instead, he pushed for hands-on experiences that prepare children for lifelong learning about a constantly changing environment. “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself,” as John Dewey put it in his famous quote.
With her approach to early childhood learning, Maria Montessori helped to spark an international movement in the twentieth century that continues to this day. She demonstrated via her own life that education occurs “not through listening to words, but through experiences in the environment.” Learning settings that promote skilled, adaptive citizens and problem-solvers were developed by the Italian physician and child development specialist, Dr. Antonio Gramsci.
Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmental psychologist, assisted us in better understanding how we make sense of our experiences as we grow older and more mature. His ideas established the groundwork for the constructivist approach to education, which encourages students to expand on what they already know by asking questions, conducting investigations, engaging with others, and reflecting on their learning experiences, among other things.
Real-Life Experiences as a Source of Learning
In this theoretical context, problem-based learning first appeared more than half a century ago as a practical teaching approach in fields such as medicine, engineering, economics, and other disciplines such as business. Students are asked to solve issues or participate in simulations that are designed to imitate real-world situations using this approach. (See Project-Based Learning in Maine Schools That Work for further information.) However, even if issues are defined in advance by the instructor, they are typically complex, if not cluttered, and cannot be solved by a single “correct” or easily-located answer. This is how medical students, for example, learn to diagnose and treat real patients — something that cannot be taught in a lecture hall. Problem-based learning, as opposed to textbook-driven instruction, places the onus on the student to ask questions and seek answers on his or her own.
Learning from Real Life
Project-based learning has emerged as a form of instruction in K-12 education that targets key subjects through rigorous, relevant, and hands-on learning. Projects, as opposed to problem-based learning, tend to be more open-ended, offering students greater flexibility in how they demonstrate what they know. (See the blog post “20 Ideas for Engaging Projects” for more information.) In contrast to projects that are added on after “real” learning, projects in project-based learning (PBL) are the focal point of the lesson. In most cases, open-ended questions are used to frame projects, which motivate students to conduct investigations, do research, or develop their answers. For example, what can we do to lessen the carbon footprint of our school? What is the safety of our drinking water? What measures may we use to safeguard a unique location or species? What methods do we use to assess the impact of disasters? Students use digital tools in the same way as professionals do — to communicate, collaborate, conduct research, analyze, produce, and publish their work for authentic audiences. They also use technology tools to communicate with one another and to collaborate with others. A literature project would ask students to create audio reviews of books instead of writing book reports, which they might then share online and request answers from a partner class in another city or country.
Fit for a New Century
A variety of phenomena have contributed to the widespread acceptance of project-based learning as a 21st-century educational paradigm. Researchers in the field of cognitive science has made significant strides in our understanding of how we learn, build expertise, and begin to think at a higher level. Fields ranging from neuroscience to social psychology have made significant contributions to our understanding of the conditions that promote the most effective learning environment. The learner’s experience is shaped by a variety of factors, including culture, context, and the social character of learning. These observations assist to explain why project-based learning (PBL) is so appealing for engaging a varied range of learners.
Although PBL can be applied across disciplines, it continuously emphasizes active, student-directed learning as the primary goal. The reason why this method is more likely to result in deeper knowledge than rote memorizing is unclear. The importance of relevance cannot be overstated. Projects provide pupils with a real-world context for learning, instilling in them a strong “need to know” for the subject matter. Another important component is motivation. Projects give students a voice and provide them the opportunity to express themselves, thereby personalizing the learning experience. Projects are intended to be open-ended in nature. This means that students will need to analyze and assess a variety of alternatives, as well as justify their decisions. All of these activities require participants to use higher-order thinking skills.
Another factor that is igniting interest in PBL is our developing understanding of what it means to be literate. It is no longer sufficient to know how to read. Today’s kids must be able to explore and assess a tremendous amount of information to be successful. This necessitates the acquisition of technological fluency as well as the development of critical-thinking abilities. PBL provides students with the opportunity not just to make sense of the knowledge, but also to add to it by making their contributions to the discussion.
New Challenges for Teachers
Finally, when they graduate from high school or college, today’s pupils will face a wide range of complicated obstacles. Knowing how to solve problems, collaborate with others, and think creatively are becoming increasingly important talents — not only for securing future employment but also for addressing difficult challenges in one’s community and throughout the world.
To meet these complicated demands, a rising number of instructors, schools, and even entire states are implementing project-based learning strategies. In some circumstances, project-based learning (PBL) is proving to be a critical component of school redesign. Project-Based Learning (PBL) programs such as New Tech Network, Expeditionary Learning, the EAST Initiative, and Envision Schools are just a few of the initiatives that are incorporating PBL into school-wide models to better prepare students for the future.
Challenges for Project-Based Learning Teachers Project-based learning is not without its difficulties. It is demanding of students — as well as of educators. Projects necessitate the use of planning and management abilities that may be foreign to teachers who have never worked with PBL previously. Furthermore, PBL places instructors in the role of facilitators rather than as subject matter experts in the classroom. Teachers may benefit from professional development to assist them in expanding their “tool kit” of teaching strategies for use in the classroom. Just as children must buy into PBL, it is equally important for teachers to feel empowered. Having the support of administrators, parents, and other members of the community can assist instructors and students in overcoming obstacles and making the most of their PBL possibilities.
As PBL acquires supporters and develops traction, the education community will continue to exchange ideas and work on projects, allowing this effective way of educating kids for the future to become even more effective in the process.