My Path to Project-Based Learning
Updated: Feb 17
Over the years I've become more and more convinced that teaching content is a waste of time. Some teachers probably find that statement questionable - even offensive - but hear me out.
Source - Midjourney
"...even now, more than 20 years later, teachers are still slogging through content as though it isn't readily available via a few keystrokes on Google."
I vividly remember when we got internet access at school. I was in grade 7, and we were assigned, in pairs, to visit the one computer in the school with a connection to the internet for about 30 minutes per week. I also remember my partner spending most of our time downloading pictures of the Spice Girls. That's not what made the technology memorable, however. Instead, it was the realization that I could learn anything I wanted from anywhere, bypassing the library, the textbooks, and ultimately, the teacher. I now recognize that this was the beginning of the end for content-based education, but even now, more than 20 years later, teachers are still slogging through content as though it isn't readily available via a few keystrokes on Google.
Of course, when I became a teacher, I was convinced I could do better. Many young teachers entering the profession probably feel the same way. Yet when I found myself in front of the classroom with thirty or more impatient faces staring up at me, the best I could do was to fall back on the methods that had been used to teach me. I simply didn't have the time, the resources, or the skill to come up with anything better.
"Of course, when I became a teacher, I was convinced I could do better."
I was luckier than most, however, as I was given almost complete creative freedom to design my courses and classroom any way I liked. Sure, I had a list of objectives to cover, but it was made clear to me that this list was only a suggestion and not a requirement to fulfill. I wasn't quite brave enough to ignore it yet, however. Instead, I started giving kids options. I asked them if they would prefer to have a unit test or complete an alternative assignment. To my surprise, they sometimes chose the test. Crucially, this was not a democratic, majority-wins kind of decision. Each student could choose the method of assessment that they preferred, whether it was a lab report, an informative poster, a class presentation, or something more traditional like a test or an essay. As soon as I made this change, it became immediately obvious that students were more motivated. After all, they were the ones who had given themselves each assignment, not me, so instead of complaining they simply got to work. Clearly, I was on to something, but there were still issues.
The most obvious problem was grading these varied and unpredictable assignments, which each required a separate rubric and task sheet outlining the expectations. This required more work on my end but was ultimately doable with enough planning time. Less easy to solve were the issues associated with fairness. Is a poster easier than an essay? Does each task have the same time commitment? Can some students work alone while others work together in groups? And lastly, but perhaps of greatest significance, is the question of whether or not each student needs to display the same level of competence and understanding in order to succeed and complete the unit adequately. Of course, education has n one-size-fits-all answer for all these questions - standardization! Every student completes the same assessment within the same time limit, graded using the same rubric, with few if any accommodations for special needs. That may be fair from a competitive, strictly academic perspective, but does it really maximize learning?
"To me, students are successful only if they are happy, healthy, and if they retain a flexible and motivating combination of curiosity and creativity well into adulthood."
At this point, I could easily launch into a philosophical discussion on what exactly school is for (this is a great book on the subject, by the way), but for now, I will simply state that I think the purpose of school is to prepare students for a successful future. That's intentionally vague so as to appeal to as many people as possible, but it's important to note that when I use the term 'successful', I'm not referring to wealth or status. To me, students are successful only if they are happy, healthy, and if they retain a flexible and motivating combination of curiosity and creativity well into adulthood.
"Students later told me that it was the closest thing any of them had ever experienced to having an actual job."
A few years into teaching middle school science, I was finally entrusted with a group of graduating students. It was a class of about 25 kids who needed a science credit but weren't interested in scientific careers. I was told to do whatever I wanted with them. This was the push I needed to completely ignore standards and wade into the waters of progressive education. I decided to split the course in half. First, I would teach some basic concepts from across the scientific spectrum, always with a focus on real-life applications and, in particular, environmental impacts. For the second half of the course, the students would work in small groups in order to complete environmental assessment projects. I told them only that they were to identify a problem with the school, research solutions, develop a proposal, and then present their recommendations. The results were surprising to say the least.
Without any influence from me, groups started brainstorming ideas, assigning project management roles, and organizing meetings. They arranged field trips, made calls to local and international businesses, conducted experiments, and collected data. Some of them even made names and logos for their group organizations in order to present themselves as professionals. Their chosen projects included audits of the school's food waste, water use, insulation, and energy budget.
In the end, each group presented to the board of directors, including the principal, parents, and representatives from the financial and maintenance offices. Students later told me that it was the closest thing any of them had ever experienced to having an actual job. Many of them went on to have successful careers in marketing and business.
It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, however. One of the groups seriously underperformed, and ultimately, none of the plans students proposed were put into action. Although it was disappointing that we didn't manage to change the school, the students instead reported that they themselves had changed. Many of them were not top-performers and had never been entrusted with so much freedom. Most of them found it empowering and exceptionally motivating. I honestly can't remember how I graded these assignments, but it was clear, even to the students involved, that the grades were secondary to the learning that took place.
I made only minor adjustments the second time I taught the course, and again the students exceeded my expectations. After that, I changed schools and wasn't able to teach a project-based course for some time. It wasn't until I came to Japan that I had the opportunity to try it again.
"...it was clear, even to the students involved, that the grades were secondary to the learning that took place."
My first few years in Japan were a bit chaotic. My teaching load far exceeded the supposed maximum stated in my contract. Around the same time, I got married and my first child was born not long afterwards. Eventually though, my schedule opened up a bit and I fell into a routine that gave me some freedom to experiment once more. I can't stress enough how important it is to give teachers enough time in their schedules to flex their creative muscles and improve their craft. Instead, many teachers are stuck treading water just trying to stay afloat.
I soon became the head of the science department and rewrote the entire curriculum (twice!) before realizing that I would probably never have a better opportunity to do what I wanted. With that in mind, I decided to go all-in on project-based learning. I had never even heard the term at that point, but I had a clear vision of what I wanted my classes to look like. I immediately scrapped tests, quizzes, and end-of-year exams, and I stopped limiting myself to all of the learning objectives I had set out to cover. Instead, I made every unit a group project with a unique theme, and for the entire year, that's all my students worked on. There were amazing successes, dismal failures, and some middling results as well, but overall the system showed enough potential to convince me that it was worth pursuing.
"I can't stress enough how important it is to give teachers enough time in their schedules to flex their creative muscles and improve their craft. Instead, many teachers are stuck treading water just trying to stay afloat."
To be fair, not everyone was or is on board with project-based education. Some students demand the structure and discipline present in a traditional classroom and struggle to cope with full autonomy and the challenges of self-management. Parents, too, are skeptical that their children will be fully prepared for upper-year courses and college. Lastly, teacher colleagues question whether you are actually teaching anything at all without the ability to lecture, plan ahead, or provide consistent, measurable progress data for each student.
These are all fair points, and I will examine what the educational research says on each of them in a separate post. For now, I have summarized some of the key differences between traditional classroom teaching and project-based learning below.
Since then, I've worked to streamline my project-based teaching, make the standards and lengths of each project more consistent, and ensure that students are exposed to enough background information to deepen their explorations. In a future post I will spell out the exact process I use in my classroom and share aspects of my curriculum plans, but hopefully this serves as a fairly robust introduction for those considering a shift towards project-based methods. Give it a try! I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.