Are projects problematic?

Larry Cuban in recent weeks has been  blogging about “project-based learning”  — and bringing in other voices as well.  (Start here and follow the links back to earlier posts.)

Larry, with his finely honed sense of history, sees the rapid spread of talk about, and experimentation with, PBL, as a re-emergence of a favorite idea of progressive education.  His instincts are to be cautious, to beware of pitfalls and detours that may arise for the unwary and the unprepared.   All three of the voices he brings in, as guest posts, voice caution, even while they say positive things about PBL.

PBL is good, because “we learn by doing.”  It gives students “voice” and brings authenticity to classroom work.  It can lead to real depth of understanding, and build up the student’s understanding that knowledge-creation is a social function, with public as well as private dimensions (Cuban’s blog is not focused on STEM alone, and PBL is seen in history and other subjects as well.)

But there are problems.  Ronnie Estoque, a high-school junior whose guest post led off the series in Cuban’s blog, worries that PBL is not a good preparation for college — college students she knows report that the social, group-based approach of PBL is not a big feature in college work, where individual accountability is the key.  Estoque notes also that in teamwork, there’s often a “freeloader” dynamic at work — some do most of the work, some do little, and yet all get credit for the whole — and the do-nothings may get little learning out of the experience.

Then there’s the concern that “depth” may come at the expense of breadth — the students may learn deeply about the subject of their project, but the time spent on it means that they can’t get the coverage that is required for true 21st century education.

Giselle Huff, another of Cuban’s guests, worries that PBL “Is not as personalized” as its advocates might think, and that it’s more about process than content – sure, skills are important, but how good is PBL for knowledge acquisition?

Then there’s the worry that PBL may be deployed only on special occasions, or for selected students.  This worry is surely akin to the attitudes that I’ve encountered with respect to “inquiry”: Sometimes you do it, and sometimes not, depends on the students and the topic and the schedule… This stance, that inquiry is a technique that, like flash cards, has its place, and the educational decision about it begins with the judgment that “now’s the right time for this tool.”   It is not so common to find a teacher who knows that inquiry is a stance which can pervade the culture of a classroom — even when the teacher is giving a talk, or the students are being trained in a technical lab skill or computational method.

Related to this fear of “PBL lite,” as John Larmer of the Buck Institute of Education (the most recent guest blogger on PBL for Cuban’s site) is the concern that not all teachers are equipped or prepared to guide truly educational PBL in their classrooms.  The Buck Institute has a short,reasonable piece on what it calls the “gold standard” for PBL, and they describe fairly well the key features of solid PBL implementation.  The piece also notes the roots of PBL in Dewey’s thinking (which has its own roots), with nods to Piaget — all under the general rubric that it’s good to “learn by doing” — if it’s done right.

I would be surprised if all these considerations come freshly to readers of this blog.  Dewey wrote trenchantly about the great demands of progressive teaching for experiential learning (which goes far beyond “learning by doing” as over-simplified by friends and foes of progressive education) — Much of Experience and Education is aimed at correcting misunderstandings, glibness, and oversimplifications (romantic or ill-tempered) in this arena.    The Dewey Group at TERC, now entering its 11th year, recently read Joseph Schwab’s challenging essay “The ‘impossible’ role of the teacher in progressive education” which explores with great insight just where the challenges for a teacher lie in adopting and implementing this principled stance.

All the cautions voiced in Cuban’s columns are well known— though that’s no reason not to say them again.  What’s curious to me is the sense of urgency in the writers’ tones — as if PBL is being pushed as the next panacea, and is likely to be widely adopted, but in adulterated form, with resulting damage (to whom?  Students?  Teachers?  Ill-advised policy advocates who push PBL without realizing how  hard it is, leading to another 30 years in exile for the idea?).  I also note an interesting subtext about teachers as the problem.

Maybe there is a renewal of interest as a healthy reaction to the reigning orthodoxies of ed policy. Indeed, as a result of policy churn over the past 30 years or so, educators and parents can be pardoned for a sense of exhausted confusion about whom and what to trust.  I note that at least one of the guest posts (Huff) suggests that the problems with PBL can be fixed if only we adopt a competency-based approach– an oxymoronic vision, or Pushmi-Pullyu, if ever there was one.   It seems to me that, unavoidably, there are systemic issues not being examined.

How, if at all, do you incorporate PBL into your work?  What are the drawbacks?  What structural factors in your school or district inhibits the growth of a culture that can foster rigorous, inquiry-rich project learning, as opposed to highly constrained interludes that hint at the possibilties but can only rarely deliver?

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