Thinking Through Project-Based Learning

At a faculty meeting a few weeks ago, we discussed what a project-based learning program might look like at our school. We have made no commitment to any changes, but it’s a topic that many of my colleagues feel strongly about, and I’m excited that the conversation has already begun, and that we as faculty will have some input.

I find these types of conversations pretty fascinating, because such a significant change to our program would obviously have a wide range of effects on students. Yet I find my language, and the language of others, often focuses on small pieces of the potential changes, losing the forest for the trees. The rhetoric around any one pet cause (and I have several) can often obscure the complexities of challenging issues.

For context, the flavor of project-based learning that we collectively seem the most interested in is adding a semester-long project, largely of students’ choosing, in which they need to do independent research and culminate with some type of final product or presentation that adds value outside of our community. Words that got thrown around to describe this type of curriculum include “interdisciplinary”, “authentic”, “depth”, “experiential”, “inquiry”, and “autodidacticism” (I had to look that last one up).

It has helped me in thinking about this issue to frame it more concretely — we have a variety of goals for students. Our current (largely traditional) program meets some of those goals better than others. Project-based learning would meet a different set of goals. If we can clearly articulate what those goals are, we can more effectively assess the benefits and drawbacks of this change. Here is my attempt to break down these goals into something manageable.

Students should leave school knowing things about the subjects we teach. This varies depending on content, but I think it can be broken down as

  • A broad base of content knowledge
  • Experience with the habits of mind and heuristics of the different disciplines
  • Greater depth of knowledge in specific areas of interest to the student

Universal Constructs
These competencies come from the Iowa Core, and are the best distillation I have found of non-content, being-a-functional-human skills that I hope my students develop. I don’t have any brilliant ideas about how to teach these, but they strike me as useful in that we can ask ourselves if the structures we have set up effectively facilitate these competencies. Check out the link above for more details.

  • Critical thinking
  • Complex communication
  • Creativity
  • Collaboration
  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Productivity and accountability

Executive Function
Lisa Bejarano’s great post turned me on to thinking more about executive function, and while this is often a focus for students with disabilities, students across every spectrum leave school lacking in these areas. Different curriculum structures affect how students’ executive function develops, and students may rely more on these skills than anything else in future endeavors. This list is shortened slightly from Lisa’s for my particular context.

  • Sustained attention
  • Task initiation
  • Planning/prioritization
  • Organization
  • Time management
  • Goal-directed persistence
  • Meta-cognition

Beliefs & Dispositions
Students leave school believing different things about how learning works. These beliefs affect all of the other competencies, and their perception of what it means to be educated. They also can’t be inserted whole into students brains. This is an incomplete list (and I’m curious if anyone else has developed a similar one!) Beliefs I want to cultivate are things like:

  • I can ask questions that are worth exploring
  • I can work to solve problems that matter in the world
  • I can improve my skills through deliberate practice
  • Most things worth learning fall outside the silos of school subjects

The Challenge

That’s one approach to breaking down our goals for students in school. There are plenty more. But I want to think about how a choice a school makes, at any level, has positive or negative impacts on each of these areas. I’m skeptical there’s any perfect approach, but it is possible to identify strengths and weaknesses, compare them, and make a decision based on more than passing fads and convincing rhetoric.

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