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63: PROJECT-BASED LEARNING -- beware the hype


Project-Based Learning

At any given time, dozens of fads swirl through the land of education. One of the biggest fads now is called Project-Based Learning (PBL). 

Edutopia, the vast education site financed by George Lucas, explains it this way: “Project learning, also known as project-based learning, is a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real-world problems and challenges, simultaneously developing cross-curriculum skills while working in small collaborative groups....” And much more in the same vein.

A progressive education site explains: “The methodology is based on research in constructivist learning, content mastery and critical thinking, and incorporates the project management skills valued by today’s global industries. The focus is on helping students move through an inquiry process that stimulates their thinking, engages them in authentic tasks, and demands demonstration of mastery.”

The purple prose should make one suspicious. Still, let’s stipulate that PBL could be useful in careful doses. Finally, it’s not that the approach is automatically unhelpful. It’s that the Education Establishment seems always to go in for overkill, favoring one method over all others, and to use this approach, almost exclusively, to study things not worth studying.

The real problem is bait-and-switch. Parents are told about a wonderful new thing called Project-Based Learning. The next thing you know it’s being used to study academic nonentities such as “Writing Positive Weather Reports,” “Gas and Diesel Taxes.” and “How are funding decisions made?”

Now, in that moment, a savvy parent might complain: “Wait a minute. I want my kid to learn history, algebra, French, bioogy. Something substantial! A student could spend a whole week studying positive weather reports and not know anything about the world.”

The Education Establishment would answer, if capable of answering honestly: “We follow John Dewey’s instruction to educate children in a cooperative way so that they will be good citizens when the country becomes socialist. What they learn is not important. That they work together is everything. I hope you’re not so old-fashioned as to want to get in the way of this vital evolutionary process.”

Of course, we don’t hear such candor. We hear endless excessive praise of PBL.
Let’s consider one site’s huge list of more than 200 possible projects. Almost all of these projects feel light-weight and ephemeral. Here are two clusters taken at random-

Highway Safety and You 
How Clean is the Air in Your Community?
How to be Healthy Campaign
Home Ownership - positives and negatives
How do you spend your time?
Images as Messages
Insect Mascot for school or town
IPM and the Mystery Caterpillar
Iraq's Reconstruction Story the costs
Lead Pb Environmental and Health issues
Lincoln Bicentennial event
Lunch Menu Calories tracking project
McCormick Island use
Mystery Bird Challenge
Mystery Butterfly Challenge
Mystery Disk History Challenge
Mystery Ring History Challenge

Time Capsule - Study Unit Assessment
Transportation, Your Community and You
Trees Map and Inventory Project
Youth Voter Campaign
Water and Air Pollution Activity
Web site Evaluation exercise
What are the nation's Priorities?
What are Our Nation's Priorities re: Hunger?
What are US priorities re: health care spending?
What should be America's Mood? What is yours?

Five of these projects could fill/kill a year. I found a few items that could be educationally helpful: "Spies in the American Revolution" and "Benjamin Franklin Extraordinary." More than 95% of the ideas seem deliberately insipid. 

Just think of all the highly trained education experts who brainstormed day after day to come up with this long list of dull projects. 

How about some real education: “The Major constellations, “ Types of spider webs,” “What’s so amazing about blood?” “How a steam engine works.”

Finally, there are two questions that must be answered. What actualy is the school trying to teach? Is it something worth teaching? (PBL seems to be a cover, a pretext, an excuse, for wasting weeks and months on trivial content.) 

Second, if the content is valid, is PBL the best way to teach that information? In fact, PBL is liable to be a very cumbersome way to teach anything. Sure, if all conditions are optimal, a student may have a memorable encounter with a topic. But at what price? That student could in the same amount of time, learn about six topics. 

If Project-Based Larning, the theory and the practice, were used to teach important material,  PBL might sometimes be a worthwhile addition to the classroom. If, however, it’s used to teach trivial information, then PBL is just another weapon in the long-running war against knowledge.

Note that, the official account notwithstanidng, PBL is far from new. It is actually a very old fad that was presented by John Dewey as “learning by experience” a century ago. Circa 1900, Dewey had his students cooking, sewing, and building a house. The bias against academic content was there from day one.

Fast forward 50 years. John Dunn was a a young teacher in the Brooklyn school system. She wrote a wonderful book about her experiences. One anecdote reveals so much. A fellow teacher told her: "I don't understand why you bother to give tests at all. Just get yourself a good project and mark that. It takes nearly all term to do and the kids think they're working hard...Be smart." 

Isn’t that great? “The kids think they’re working hard.” Probably the parents are also fooled. 

That casual dismissal of “tests’ is exactly the operating philosophy today, 60 year later. The Education Establishment is always trying to discard testing, and replace it with so-called “authentic assessment,” for example, a project. Real testing, you see, reveals whether any education is taking place. Projects are much more subjective and murky. 

Finally, it comes down to intent. Does the school hope to teach something important? The causes of the American Revolution, for example. Basic facts about electricity, for example. The main features of Roman Civilization, for example. Or how about, learning enough French to survive in Paris for a week?

Clearly, if you put your mind to it, your will of think of many really interesting things that kids should know, and you yourself would enjoy learning if you were still in school. 

PBL projects are usually group projects 

PBL and Cooperative Learning in general like to pretend that the only way adults work anymore is in groups. Which is obviously not true at all. But If they do engage in group activity, each person in that group has a specific function and title. They don’t overlap. They don’t do each other’s work.

Fascinatingly enough, we already have many examples of this very thing in every public school: the band, football team, theatre club, chorus, yearbook, student newspaper. Every one of those things is just like their adult counterpart.

But when PBL comes up with a project, it’s always the kids basically doing the same job at the same time. They have a group grade, group responsibility, group contribution, group success, group failure. As you have six kids doing basically the same thing, one or two kids will carry the group. The slower kids won’t do anything at all and the kids in the middle will contribute a little but not as much as they would if they were working alone. 

Socialist progressive educators are much more interested in group activities than they are in whatever may or may not be learned. 

Pretending that PBL Cooperative Learning is like what goes on in an ad agency is just ridiculous, and another reason for doubting the so-called wonders of Project-Based Learning.


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