Learning Through Projects

A familiar quote of teachers and educators is, “we learn by doing.” As a child, my parents used that to encourage me to my math homework. I am sure I am not the only child who experienced that! I prefer a slightly different version of the quote: “we learn by applying.”

Some readers of my version of the quote will immediately think of math “word problems” and be filled with a sense of horror. Fortunately for them, I’m talking about something very different. I’m talking about project-based learning (PBL). Wikipedia quotes Edutopia and defines PBL as “Project-based learning is a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge.”

Project-based learning is a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge

The key here is “real-world problems”. PBL encourages learners to learn to actively apply techniques to which they may have been exposed to actually solving problems. Problem-based learning can be used with youth or adult learners. In one college class, we developed a record retrieval system for our university department. Rather than just learn a new programming language (C) and new data management techniques, we had to use that language and those techniques to implement the project.

When a student has to solve a real problem, she has to sort out techniques, research options, and so forth. That helps build a depth of understanding simple, contrived problems cannot. This is not to say there is no place for simpler problems! One cannot ask a freshman engineering student to build a mile-long bridge. The problems need to be appropriate for the learners.

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I have seen project-based learning used in adult contexts, too. Some companies have had students research and design layouts for new facilities and marketing campaigns for products. The point is that rather than listening to someone talk about store design layouts, the participants did their own research and then and then applied it to a real store or product. In an upskilling environment, the projects must be linked to desired workplace skills.

A project-based learning activity is unlikely to be the sole component of a learning plan. It will likely generally be a significant component of a program, however. It may not in and of itself lead to mastry of a topic. More learning activities may be required.

There are other benefits, too. The learners had to work in real teams, for example. They also had to integrate with other units of the companies, and so forth. This provides a more holistic and immersive experience. Thus project-based learning requires genuine collaboration and communication.

And of course, the core of PBL is problem-solving. I repeatedly hear that business leaders want their people to be able to solve problems. The use of project-based learning not only encourages but demands solutions to real problems.

Other pedagogies involve projects of various types from simple activities to complex group work. Project-based learning is different: the focus on a project demands the learner to build the skills and knowledge in a just-in-time way. That constructivist framework builds a strong foundation for future learning and working.

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