“But you didn’t teach us anything yet!” This was kind of hard for me to hear. A student said it to me the other day as we started a project.
I might not be the best at small talk, but in the right setting I have a lot to say. School is one of those settings. Regardless of the subject (except maybe for calculus), I think I could stand in front of almost any class and grandiloquently pontificate ad infinitum. Just this morning, after I read the daily announcements, my G6 homeroom students got a 10-minute lecture on subjects including Facebook’s future, Chinese internet censorship, Seward’s Folly, the Louisiana Purchase, and Japanese Manchuria. I’m not sure what the students thought, but I know I was slightly sad when the bell rang.
Yet despite my clear aptitude for pedantic lecturing, I love project-based learning and am overjoyed to have it at the heart of what I do – even if it occasionally results in comments like the one above. First off, I love it because it fits with how I remember learning best as a student myself. In elementary school, whenever we got to choose a person to do a report on, I chose either Alexander the Great or Alexander Graham Bell. I chose them because we had the same first name. Stupid reason, but the results speak for themselves. I probably remember more minor biographical details about those two Alexanders than all the rest of what I remember learning in elementary school combined. Do I remember my 4th-grade teacher’s name? No (well, not at the moment, I’m sure it’ll come to me). Do I remember Alexander the Great’s horse’s name? HECK YES.
My childish obsession with my own first name aside, there are many other reasons why I love project-based learning. It fits with what I know about how people learn meaningfully in any context, it fits with what I know about motivation, it fits with what I know about personal growth, authentic experience, relevance, real-world connections, just-in-time learning, and a dozen other facets of what I think I know about how people learn. Obviously I don’t think a project-based model fits every type of learning. I didn’t learn to type on a keyboard or drive a car, for example, through brainstorming or reflecting. But I do think that it fits almost every type of learning that has as its aims the more effulgent Blooming of the human mind.
Where do I stand on challenge-based learning? I feel pretty much the same way about it as I do about project-based learning (of which I think it’s an interesting subset or provocative reframing, if slightly questionable because of “branding” issues). It’s great. It’s a great model, and it leads to exciting results. I’m not going to say that I think every project needs to be an interdisciplinary global collaboration that solves major world problems (because what room does that leave for studying Alexander the Great’s horse?), but surely it’s good if some of them are.
And what’s the role of technology in all of this? It’s how we formulate, plan, embellish, share and reflect on every one of these projects or challenges. It’s not indispensable (I suppose Homer finished some pretty awesome projects using just his head), but it is invaluable.