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Is Project-Based Learning the stepping stone to change in education?

June 8, 2021

There are two general angles to the discussion around change in education. There are those who want to keep the existing structures in place, but make education more learner-centred and inclusive, and there are those who dismiss that as "tinkering at the edges" and want to transform the system to become fully learner-directed and transversal.

Project-Based Learning (PBL) seems to elicit praise from both camps, and that includes higher and further education as well as K-12 schools. So we wonder: is the wholesale adoption of PBL a stepping stone to more fundamental change, which everyone can agree on?

What is Project-Based Learning?

Project-Based Learning is not project work. Remember when you learned all about Romans, and the teacher came to school dressed as a centurion and got really grumpy because the class still seemed kind of bored? It's not that.

Imagine If, a Danish PBL consultancy sum it all up by saying that "Project-based learning is a full-time methodology. It's a mindset that students learn by doing. Teachers design projects so students hit learning goals by going through the process of making the project, but the ownership is on the students to decide how they will complete it."

Let's take the most open example: choose an issue that is important to you and do something about it. Yes really, it can be as broad and exciting as you like. A question like that can be a starting point for PBL into which so many learning opportunities can be built, and so many skills developed. Imagine, in this case, that the response from the learner is that climate change is the thing that bothers them most, and they want to understand it on a global level to make a difference at a local level.

And so it begins: researching, synthesizing information, defining the "problem", surveying others, persuading, reaching out to real organizations, designing a social media campaign with real metrics, event planning, and budgeting, fundraising, reflection, resilience and perseverance, creativity, design thinking, activism, linking up with learners in other countries, global citizenship, understanding global policies and the mechanisms of law, carbon literacy and...we could go on, but the point is made. The learning opportunities are rich, and the best thing is that the learner decides on the direction to take.

How can Project-Based Learning appeal to both camps?

Traditional, mainstream schools who are trying to include more authentic learning in their approach can still loosely scaffold the parameters of the project so that it aligns to the learning outcomes, even if they need to adapt the way they measure competencies by using an agile system such as Lift Learning. Within those parameters there remains scope to be extremely creative. Learners solve a problem, answer a question, use a huge array of resources and tools, learn and communicate in diverse ways, and ultimately take ownership in a way that really motivates. Motivation without voice and choice can only be external, and that's really never worked out well.

The more learner-directed environments can use Project-Based Learning too but may build the opportunities to measure and assess collaboratively with the learner. There will be more open flexibility in direction and duration and more emphasis on tools such as metacognitive reflection and 360-degree feedback. As a core approach, there is something in it for both camps.

Project-Based Learning

What are the benefits of Project-Based Learning?

First off, let us just be really clear. When PBL is done right, it works. The Allen-Sanchez study showed that Schools using PBL reported significant improvements in engagement, attainment, attendance, skills development and deeper learning skills that will serve the learner lifelong and life-wide.

When tasks are meaningful and voluntary, when they are self-directed and unscripted, rich learning takes place. Leaving "what" behind and looking at "why" and "how" uses our natural creative curiosity, and when learners can express their learning in their own words and their own ways, the memories created around that cluster of knowledge and skills are positive and enduring. Student-driven inquiry, as opposed to tasks set by a teacher- these, are worlds apart. Learners are not uniform, and traditional classes struggle to cater to the diversity within their walls. Not so with Project-Based Learning, where learners can move at their pace, in their way, in their language, and on their terms. There can be play, failure, reflection, iteration, and retrenchment. This is all part of a living, breathing authentic task, and light-years away from the cotton-wool-padded and scripted projects that already have an answer for everything, boxes to tick, and few, if any, variables.

The artifacts or outputs of Project-Based Learning need not end at the classroom walls. Real tangible business ideas or social projects, community events, or physical devices. Learners can see the real application of their learning to the world around them because that is the way learning should be.

Project-Based Learning for a VUCA world

As one teacher put it, "Project Based Learning puts students at the epicenters of design and outcome, creating new generations of visionaries and “solutionaries.”

The VUCA world is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Commentators often use this term to talk about the future, but we are clearly already there. If 2020 showed us anything, it is that this world will throw us a curveball whenever it feels like it, and there is nothing we can do.

Not nothing. We can at least prepare. We saw it clearly in 2020; those who were ready to adapt to the new reality were able to find opportunities to thrive (not to "capitalize", which is a different thing). If learners grow up with scripted outcomes, controlled environments, predictable outcomes, and all the certainties of test-driven education, how will they ever be ready for challenges we cannot yet imagine?

In Project-Based Learning, you develop agency. You find out what you like, what drives you, what you are capable of, and all of the things that surprise you about yourself. There is no certain outcome, and there are multiple ways to get where you want to go, with forks and failures in every road, which become reflection and resilience. PBL is not the panacea, but it is an important part of the puzzle.

Project-Based Learning 1

Not so fast!

Project-Based Learning is not an extension, or an add on. It is not something that can be dropped into a traditional learning environment and made ready for Monday morning.

The culture of the school or institution will not change overnight, and there can be a tendency to over-evaluate or micromanage processes, rather than letting learners find their own way forward. Shortcomings in the planning can lead to unfair criticisms of PBL, such as when the task distribution has not been well-supported, and teachers see learners "slacking" when in fact it is the structure that has failed to engage them.

The real world angle has to be, well, real. If a group of university students is working on a community project that feels too scripted and curated, it will detract from the excitement of a challenge that has a truly uncertain outcome. Teachers, learning guides and facilitators have to step back and take on a different role, and this is not easy for so many professionals who are used to leading from the front.

Project-Based learning is an amazing tool that has the magic ability to fit in to almost any learning environment, but it can take many months or years to perfect it and let the organisational culture adapt to it. Creative learning experience designers can build in other approaches and methodologies within and around it, with PBL at the core, and the learning environment can be truly transformed, without scrapping the outcomes that are often externally imposed.

Is it all worth it? Let's let Sir Ken Robinson answer that one:

"The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

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