Education-for-Employment: Qualifying 'Project-Based' Learning

I wrote about the futility of the much-loved 'demand-led' approach to education (see here): The essential argument is that no one really knows, and can't know, what the demand will look like even over a short time horizon. This is indeed due to globalisation, which has exposed even the most localised of the economies to the ups and downs of the global economy. And, globalisation wouldn't mandate that all economies follow a predictable path to industrial revolution and beyond: Rather, it only stands for constant churn, ordering and reordering of economies, with movements of global finance, which is affected by zillions of factors outside anyone's control, including unfettered greed of some individuals as well as callous fraud (as we saw in Libor or Foreign exchange scandals).

I argued that project-based approach to education, where the learners are exposed to real life work, is an alternative, and a better approach, than 'demand led'. This is the free market alternative to the demand planning, and this allows the learners to prepare with the implicit skills of survival, which is turning out to be the most important skill of all. Within the given context that we have very little control over our circumstances - you can be sent home despite working very hard because your factory is closing because of someone manipulating the exchange rates - understanding the dynamic of work is perhaps the best way to have a fighting chance.

Some of the correspondents indeed did not see the distinction between the two, however. In their view, Project-based learning is a pedagogical strategy that goes hand in hand with the philosophical approach of 'demand led' learning. However, while this may look like a good theory, the 'demand led' approach is an instructional strategy in practise, wherein the curriculum is designed based on employers' skill requirements, shared in advance with the educators. Various national governments try to facilitate this through the formation of Sector Skills Councils, who do not only stop at identifying the skills requirements of a sector, but also closely define the certification standards. And, the philosophical approach of 'Project Based' learning is not based on meeting the skills requirements of the market, but to develop a closer appreciation of the practise of work, in its messy unpredictability and uncertain dynamism. This stands in stark contrast with the supposedly neat world of demand-led collaboration between industry and academia.

The others objected to the projection of 'project based learning' as a silver bullet for education-to-employment gap. Whichever name we use, 'project-based' or 'competency-based' learning, this has been around for at least forty years (and indeed, if we count the apprentice system, this is centuries old) and this has hardly proved to be a panacea. In fact, the modern research-led higher education, in professional trades such as medicine, business and the law, came at the expense of the more primitive forms of project-based learning. Surely the practical knowledge is needed, but have we not already traversed the path and know that the sole dependence on practise may create limited perspectives and become inimical to the development of 'judgement', both in moral and pragmatic sense, they asked.

Indeed, I very much see project-based learning as work in progress, and did not intend to project this as a final answer of any kind. While practical learning is needed, the sole reliance on this, and replacing all opportunities of liberal learning with practical work, may make one a prisoner of practise. This was always a problem with apprenticeships, and this is why, despite their apparent practical usefulness, higher education emerged as a separate area of learning, focused on advancement of knowledge. It is an apparent paradox that we return to the prescription of 'competency led learning', as, among others, Christensen Institute project as the future of Higher Education, just when the requirement of knowledge and creativity at work has become paramount. When the tasks are complex, future is unpredictable and the trades are facing unprecedented challenges to their moral legitimacy and practical usefulness, the requirement of judgement seems paramount: And, yet, it seems we see the best way to train our workforce through the old practice of work-based learning. This is where I thought I needed to qualify my enthusiasm about project-based learning.

The point about project-based learning (henceforth, PBL) is that it is not just different from the predictability of demand-led learning, it is also distinct from the apprenticeships. If a distinction of this sort can be allowed, this is about understanding the culture of practise rather than the practise itself. Indeed, this is a nuanced challenge for the instructional designer to turn experiences into 'teachable moments', but a good implementation of PBL is not just about immersing the learner into practise, as apprenticeships will do, but also allowing enough reflection opportunities for seeing the practise from outside. At one level, PBL may enhance the employability of the learner by teaching them the language of work; but if one stops at that, sooner or later, that model falters, as the learners' careers stagnate after an initial good start. The sales-oriented models of for-profit higher education may look no farther than ensuring the learner a job immediately after the course and boasting about the pay-back, but their investors will soon understand that this is not a long term or scalable model unless such education create career longevity, which the sole focus on practice may not. Besides, professions, as distinct from trades, are territories fraught with the risks of moral failure, and demand more than just practical knowledge: The task of PBL, therefore, when applied to modern professions, is to ensure a broad view of setting this profession in context, rather than getting consumed by the tradesperson's myopia.

There is indeed no silver bullet for anything, and PBL isn't a silver bullet, just a distinct approach with practical possibilities, which was my whole point in the previous post. One must even see beyond the rhetoric of PBL, because in its practical avatar, it often stands for poor, and non-existent teaching, and very commonly, de-professionalisation of teaching (as, some of the PBL proponents surmise, teaching is not needed). But, carefully constructed, PBL still stands for one of the best approaches to initiate the learner to the world of practise, one of the most potent ideas to develop practical judgements, and if one cares, development of the learner as a grounded individual rather than some sort of snob disconnected from the real world.



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