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by John R. Mergendoller
Executive Director

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October 22, 2014
The Importance of Project Based Teaching

by John R. Mergendoller
Executive Director

In the fall of 1918, William Heard Kilpatrick published an influential essay entitled, “The Project Method” which caught the attention of American educators. Kilpatrick focused attention on the importance of student engagement (what we might today refer to as “flow”), and the student-chosen “purposeful act” of learning.1  The goal of projects was to foster student motivation by allowing students to determine the “purposes” they wanted to pursue. Unless students were given unfettered voice and choice, schoolwork would only be daily drudgery, which was counterproductive to preparing democratic citizens, the ultimate aim of education.

Although this rather romantic vision of education has resonated among writers from Rousseau to A. S. Neill, it did not resonate with John Dewey. Dewey believed Kilpatrick’s focus on unrestricted student choice was misguided. Student choice was important, but it was not absolute. Dewey also questioned Kilpatrick’s emphasis on spontaneous and total student engagement, and contrasted his emphasis on “purposeful activity” with Dewey’s own concern with the “act of thinking.” For Dewey, projects were not primarily about engagement; they were about learning to think, the purpose of all educational endeavors. Thinking was an iterative process whereby students encounter a conceptual or practical obstacle, plan a solution, try it out, and reflect upon their results.2

It was the teacher’s job, Dewey believed, to place just such obstacles in students’ paths. Effective projects were carried out through the “common enterprise” where “the teacher becomes a partner in the learning process, guiding students to independently discover meaning within the subject area.”3, 4 Projects with no attention to teacher judgment, guidance, and interaction were likely to fail, or fail to challenge students.5  Students had important things to learn from the teacher, including high standards and a sense of excellence.

Although William Kilpatrick gained fame as the author and popularizer of “The Project Method,” his ideas fell into disfavor, and he eventually began to question them himself.Dewey’s argument for a learning partnership between student and teacher was seen as a more realistic and productive model of teaching and learning.

Now a century after the Kilpatrick–Dewey dispute it’s time to focus again on Project Based Teaching. Although one seeks to engage students in project work, and grant student voice & choice as much as possible, the teacher remains the most important person in the classroom. Teachers design and plan projects with specific learning goals, model and scaffold learning so that students can meet these goals, co-manage the project process, assess learning, give feedback to help students improve, and plan new project scaffolds and resources. I like to think of a PBL teacher as part jazz orchestra conductor, part batting coach, and part jazz composer. The goal is to perform the score (project), but there is room for improvisation by the orchestra members (students) as well as by the conductor.

People speak of PBL as being “student-centered” (a la Kilpatrick), but I don’t find this is an accurate description of Gold Standard PBL, which is “learning centered” (a la Dewey). In much discussion of PBL, enthusiasts have often over emphasized the product students complete, and under-emphasized the learning process (e.g., Dewey’s “cognitive act”) necessary to achieve that product. Project Based Teaching draws attention to the teacher’s role in the student’s learning process, calling it out as every bit as important – if not sometimes more important – than the exertions of the student. An explicit focus on what the teacher does to make PBL successful invites educators to examine what has been learned about effective teaching over the past decades, and consider how this applies to PBL.

BIE National Faculty Member Suzie Boss has just written a wonderful blog that does just that. Wondering why John Hattie’s Visible Learning, an influential compilation of meta-analyses, concluded that Problem Based Learning had little impact on students learning, she examined Hattie’s encyclopedic results carefully, concluding that Hattie’s analyses showed many of the PBL instructional practices that occur within projects to be quite effective. These included Piagetian programs based on challenges that cause learners to apply higher-order thinking and learn collaboratively, meta-cognitive strategies, problem-solving teaching, cooperative learning, formative assessment, challenging tasks, peer tutoring, and most importantly, feedback (what we call critique and revision).  There’s a lot of PBL Teaching in those practices! (Note: I’ll address the consequences of Hattie’s analyses for PBL more fully in a future blog.)

If PBL is to infiltrate classrooms around the world, then teachers will need to learn how to implement the specific teaching practices that make PBL effective. Many of these practices, such as cooperative learning, are found in both PBL and non-PBL classrooms. Other practices, such as helping students become reflective, metacognitive learners, are more likely to be found within a project than as part of a recitation/discussion. Project Based Teaching includes both. It is up to teachers and researchers throughout the world to share and systemize these best instructional practices.


1Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikzentmihaly, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: HarperPerennial.

2Knoll, M. (1997). The project method: Its vocational education origin and international development. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 34(3).

3Dewey, J., & Small, A. W. (1897). My pedagogic creed (No. 25). EL Kellogg & Company.

4Dewey, J. (1938). Education and experience. New York: Macmillan. Cited in Knoll, 1977, Op Cit.

5Dewey, J., & Small, A. W. (1897). My pedagogic creed (No. 25). EL Kellogg & Company.

6Knoll, 1977, Op Cit.


 Comments

  • You’re reference to Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” really struck me here, especially with your emphasis on “learning centered” over “student-centered.” Flow is “the psychology of optimal experience” and few people out there, let alone those interviewed in Csikszentmihalyi’s book, would disagree that learning is the optimal experience that “illuminates the way to happiness.” I would not be a Project Based teacher if it were not for having read “Flow” during a graduate class. For when things flow in the classroom, just as in a jazz quartet, learning is taking place.

    Eileen Clifford on October 23, 2014 
    [Reply to this comment]
  • Thanks for bringing the teacher back into Project Based Learning. Many of us who have not had the pleasure of working in a PBL network or having the resources for adequate professional development might otherwise consider Project Based Learning an instructional practice for the privileged few. Yet, when you explain it through Kilpatrick and Dewey, I remember the learned pedagogy that you spell out in your final paragraphs with the mention of cooperative learning, metacognition, formative assessment, and more. It would be great to learn more about others like Piaget and Hattie that have lent to Project Based best instructional practices. I’ve read about the 8 Essential Elements and come up with my own parallels, but it would be great to hear more from experts such as yourself.

    Joya Ospina on October 23, 2014 
    [Reply to this comment]

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