The other day my friend Paul Wood tweeted an interesting quote from a fellow named George DiGianni:
“If you live in the question you are infinite, if you live in the answer, you are finite.”
I really liked that quote. To me, it sums up the differences between Problem Based and Project Based Learning. Project Based Learning, by definition, begins with the end in mind. The final product, whatever it is, is already known to the learner. What exactly the final project looks like is up to the students and may vary from student to student or group to group, but the end is clear. In “real life” I suppose that there are quite a few situations where this is a valid form of thinking. An architect is designing a house or a store. You have been asked to make a bridge, or build a robot, or design a 21st century classroom. The end is always clear. (Of course there are levels and sublevels and the true definition of a project based unit has sort of melted over the years, but I think the idea of Project Based Learning remains the same: The project is part of the problem and is already pre-defined.)
I have had difficulty in actually truly defining what constitutes actual projects in Project Based Learning. Of course, we all know that since it is a constructivist model of learning that the student is the discoverer of the learning, instead of the teacher being the all knowing distributor of learning. Kids get to learn for themselves, which I think is the better approach to learning. But when the end is already determined, one wonders how much true learning is already taking place, and how much is the students previous knowledge is actually just completing the assignment. For instance, I can recall science labs that were used to demonstrate a concept that actually could be pretty much figured out without even doing the lab. Chemistry class was the worst at that. The reactions were discussed prior to the lab, and if one merely read the book or paid attention to the teachers notes, one could figure out the results of the lab without even doing it. For instance, if we talked about precipitation reactions and the teacher talked about the sodium sulphate reaction with copper(II) chloride, and then we DID the sodium sulphate with copper(II) chloride in a lab, we knew that we will get a particular colored precipitate whether it worked or not. We were living in the answers in chemistry. We already knew how the answer was going to look. We already knew how the frog would look before we dissected it, we already knew that the plants would move towards the light after we discussed phototropism. For much of what we did in science labs, we lived in the answer, and I suspect that still is the case.
Philosophically I suppose, that is not always a bad thing; Students sometimes have to have that reinforcement of concepts to see that what the teacher said is in fact, reality. But I wonder how much academic time is used up reinforcing the obvious? How much time are students not discovering, but rather regurgitating already learned knowledge?
Science labs are, I think, short Project Based Learning lessons. Students start with the end in mind.
That needs to be reversed in order for students to have a deeper understanding in learning. Without going into Bloom’s, which we all have memorized, true , deep learning takes place when students are connecting the dots on their own. But if the dots are already drawn on the paper,
In project based learning, the answer is the king. The answers are already known. The knowledge is finite.
What needs to happen is a shift from a system where the answer is king, to a system where the question is king. We need to start or restart the idea that students need to create the question that they also will answer. Problem based learning is a good methodology for doing this, because the students are presented with real world situations where they not only have to come up with the question to be answered but also the method of answering the question. The emphasis is on the question, which is infinite, not the answer, which is finite.
Let’s go back to the precipitate example from above:
What would happen if the process were flipped, and the lab was done first and the background material given later? Students would do the lab, see and measure the precipitate that was created and then have to figure out what it was. They then would have to explain what the precipitate was, how it got there, what it is good for, and what kind of reactions produce precipitates. They would be formulating the questions to be answers, researching the answers, and presenting their findings. All along the teacher acts as a facilitator of knowledge , providing guidance and information to help students fill in their mental blanks. The question is the king.
Consider phototropism. What would happen in that example if the students were to put plants in the light, and had to observe what happened, then had to figure out what was happening with little or no background knowledge? What if they had to come up with the question to be answered and then had to answer it? Deeper learning takes place because they are synthesizing the various aspects of the learning as well as owning the learning. They are answering their own questions. That is powerful.
The learning outcomes do not change in any of the examples, but what happens is that the learning takes on the added benefit of students beginning to use questions to solve problems, which is what we as educators actually want them to do: Solve problems on their own, not simply answer questions.
And that type of learning is infinitely better.