Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Teach old-school: try Project-based Learning

When I began my foray into Project-based Learning, I had one word that I believed was the plumb line for the projects: genuineness.  The projects needed to be real.  Now real projects have gone on in school from the beginning of time: think of the ceramic picture frame you made in elementary school, or the paper towel holder you fashioned in woodwork class.  Students have been fixing cars, building strobe lights, sewing pajamas and making masks in school since forever.

Do these activities fulfill PBLs mantra?  They can.  Learning does happen through the creation and completion of the project.  And genuine useful artifacts are produced.  'Learning through' replaces simply 'learning about'.  Classic PBL, right?

Not necessarily

So then what's different about today's push into PBL?  Is it student choice?  Adding social interaction?  Technology?


Well, then.  What are the standards that PBL needs to abide by?  Where can classic examples be found?  Whose idea was this anyway?  With a little digging, you'll find that Project-based Learning isn't anything new.  In fact, it stems as far back as the end of the First World War.

The word 'project' is perhaps the latest arrival to knock for admittance at the door of educational terminology.  Shall we admit the stranger?
- William Heard Kilpatrick Oct. 12, 1918

picture from the Georgia College web site

William Heard Kilpatrick, a teacher and progressive educational philosopher, uses the term project in the way that Project-based Learning teachers would be proud of and not the watered down word project that covers teacher driven, thrown in the trash when it gets home, creations.

You can find a great biography here.

In his The Project Method: The Use of the Purposeful Act in the Educative Process, Columbia University October 12, 1918, Kilpatrick refers to the idea of a purposeful act as his construct for a meaningful project.  It is a "wholehearted purposeful activity proceeding in a social environment".  He uses the example of a girl sewing a dress:

"Suppose a girl has made a dress. If she did in hearty fashion purpose to make the dress, if she planned it, if she made it herself, then I should say the instance is that of a typical project." (top of p.2)

He posits the purposeful act as a unit of democratic life which he juxtaposes against slave life.

It is equally true that the purposeful act is not the unit of life for the serf or the slave. These poor unfortunates must in the interest of the overmastering system be habituated to act with a minimum of their own purposing and with a maximum of servile acceptance of others’ purposes. In important matters they merely follow plans handed down to them from above, and execute these according to prescribed directions. For them another carries responsibility and upon the results of their labor another passes judgment. No such plan as that here advocated would produce the kind of docility required for their hopeless fate. But it is a democracy which we contemplate and with which we are here concerned. (top of p.3)

Kilpatrick then talks about the difference between two children making kites: one with wholeheartedness of purpose verses one who makes his under direct compulsion.  Not only does he show how the learning is greater for the student whose kite-making is a purposeful act but he shares that:

To the one the teacher is a friend and comrade; to the other, a taskmaster and enemy. (bottom of p.5)

This hundred year old wisdom speaks to the possibility that the picture frame, paper towel holder, car repair, strobe light, PJs, or mask may not adhere to the essence of PBL.  They may not have the student's wholehearted purpose.  My word genuineness may not be the best plumb line for PBL.

So the question is: what is a good plumb line?  Possibly we need to ask ourselves a series of questions as educators to keep our projects purposeful acts?

Here's a start:
Whose idea was this?
Did the student purpose to complete the project?
Were there simply "plans handed down"?
Was the project completed in a social environment?
Who carried the burden of responsibility for completion?
Whose judgement carries the most weight?

Not everything I am doing in the classroom would be considered by Kilpatrick a purposeful act, but when my students work on these kinds of projects, I see the benefits.  When the room feels less like a classroom and more like some kind of campaign headquarters, I know that the projects my students are working on are purposeful acts.  And it pushes me to facilitate even more of these activities with a purpose.

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