Six Cheers For Project-Based Learning

If one contrasts the way Colleges usually deliver education - defined around a set of textbooks, driven by lectures and reading and assessed by essays - it should be clear that Project-based Learning, where learning is defined by a set of real life tasks, driven by collaboration and interaction and assessed by outcomes, works better. Here are six reasons why.

First, the best way to learn is by doing it. We all know this. Even the college model of lectures, textbooks and essays is itself built around this assumption - it is teaching one to become a scholar, by doing scholarly work. It is a proven model and has worked for centuries, well grounded in the experiences of what Hannah Arendt called Vita Contemplativa, contemplative life. The objective of college has changed, though, and now we expect the college to prepare for Vita Activa, life of labour, work and action. The best way to prepare for this life is through activities.

Second, while a contemplative life may be expected to be a solitary one, life of action is essentially social. And, it is not about new economy or the old. There is enough evidence that while great inventions were reported as flash of insights, they originated in interactions, in social settings, where, as Matt Ridley would say, ideas could have sex. The textbooks, lectures and essays, make a world focused essentially on oneself. One could argue that this preparation is important to participate well in the social conversation of ideas, but while this preparation is important, it is far more important not to try to anticipate all the realities of life in an idealised form, lest it develop in us a sense of withdrawal from the real world. The best way to prepare for the real world is to be in the real world.

Third, the experience of real life must come from inside the college, because the college, as a credential factory, has become too important. A recent IPPR study on Labour Markets in Europe shows that professional work opportunities for younger people has collapsed, including the concept of Saturday Work for 16 year olds in Britain, which offered valuable work experience for young students of earlier generations. And, this may as well be a global trend - many jobs that required only a High School diploma, now requires a college degree. However, this means if college remains inward-looking, scholarly and a solitary pursuit, too many people would arrive at work with degrees but no preparation to work. This is indeed the case right now, and would become more acute as these students have to face the challenge from increasing automation of process-based jobs.

Fourth, the locus of education, due to the changes in the nature of knowledge and access to it, has also shifted from a process of knowledge transfer to whole-person preparation, if we have to give a name to the complex set of goals that a modern education attempts to achieve. The textbook-driven model, sustained, in many cases, for the textbook industry (not just in America, but see how powerful Academic Notes authors are in Developing countries, often sitting on University curriculum committees), focuses too much on Content, rather than Practice. Much of the work today, except arguably for teaching in those colleges which indulge in a content-only model, is about using knowledge in context, taking initiative in finding out the answers and using judgements, things that human beings do better than the machines. Project-Based Learning supplies this missing link - Context - to make learning worthwhile. One has to think of the reform of the Medical Schools in the United States in the early Twentieth century, spurred on by Flexner Report, which surmised that a content-based learning, without practical experience, is worthless in training physicians. So it is today, in most professions.

Fifth, Project-Based Learning goes a long way to avoid the grade-inflation problem that the traditional models are facing. It presents a multi-dimensional look at the ability, and often involving an outside perspective, rescuing it from the cozy game-playing that assessments often become. And, by doing so, it helps to develop an appropriate work ethic, a culture of responsibility rather than gaming the system, a commitment to play your part rather than solitary pursuit of achievement, not just for a better worker, but also a better citizen.

Sixth, and this is personal, is what the student leaves with when s/he has gone through Project-based Learning. In my first interview, when I just finished my Masters in Economics, the interviewer, a well-known businessman, asked me what I can do. Every time I tried answering him, he would interrupt and say - I did not ask you what you knew, and I was sure you knew some things, but what you could do! I could not answer the question to his satisfaction, and did not get the job. I wish I went through Project-Based Learning myself.

There are a number of people who would complain that changing the learning models from what it is today would undermine academic values, and make the Higher Education system a fodder for companies. They argue driving learning through work would undermine Critical thinking of the learners and they would not question the corporate interests as earnestly they do now. But do they? One could clearly see that these arguments are based on interests and entitlements, of winners in the system as it is now, against a change that may threaten those privileges. Michael Crow of Arizona State writes in his Designing The New American University that academicians love Critical Thinking as long as it is not applied to what they do. He has certainly got it right.  


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