The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Project-based learning is a new rage in education. Never mind that it’s a century old.

The reform pendulum

ALEXANDRIA, VA - FEBRUARY 22: Students Milad Omidian, left, and Mikayla Addison interact following a class at TC Williams High School Thursday February 22, 2017. Students and their mentors from George Mason University presented their final observations for a project called "Having Difficult Conversations." The project directed students to choose a partner "very different from themselves, someone with whom they disagree about something very foundational" and record those conversations in photographs and art. Addison was a member of that class. Omidian dropped in to say "hi." (Dayna Smith for the Washington Post)

Put the phrase “project-based learning” into a search engine and the results could lead you to think that it is a highly successful approach to learning that is thoroughly modern and even transformative in a way never seen before in American public schools.

While project-based learning can indeed be successful and exciting, it is hardly new. It is, in fact, a century old, as education historian Jack Schneider explains in this post. Schneider, a policy analyst who studies the influence of politics, rhetoric, culture and information in shaping attitudes and behaviors, looks at its place in the continuum of school reform and what happened the last time it was popular. It is something of a cautionary tale.

Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and author of “Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality,” which takes a look at the broad question of how public schools are doing. He co-hosts the education policy podcast “Have You Heard” and is writing a book about DeVos and the broader push to dismantle traditional public education. Follow him on Twitter @Edu_Historian.

How are America’s public schools really doing?

By Jack Schneider

Students “are unprepared for the modern economy and the challenges of the twenty-first century.” It’s the sort of assertion the public hears regularly. And like most dire assessments of the schools, the claim is a preamble for a reform initiative. In this case: Project Based Learning.

Project Based Learning, or PBL as it is often called, is more or less what it sounds like. Rather than acquiring content information and then demonstrating that on a test or quiz, students work for extended periods of time on projects that require particular knowledge or skills. In theory at least, students learn the curriculum en route to completing an increasingly sophisticated series of projects.

In recent years, the approach has developed a significant following. One group, which calls itself High Quality Project Based Learning, boasts over 3,200 schools on its list of affiliates. PBL has attracted millions of dollars in philanthropic funding from sources such as the Hewlett Foundation and the George Lucas Educational Foundation. A search for the phrase yields 15 million hits on the internet.

Out with the old and in with the new, it seems. Projects are on the march.

Yet projects have marched before. In fact, the approach is currently celebrating its centennial. The same year that armistice ended World War I, Columbia University professor William Heard Kilpatrick produced his own shot heard round the world: “The Project Method.”

So why, after 100 years on the shelf, has this approach come roaring back to life?

To answer that question, it’s important to know what made projects a sensation in the first place.

At the time Kilpatrick published his seminal article, curriculum policy was chiefly shaped by the aims of efficiency and uniformity, emphasizing breadth and recall. Projects were a direct challenge to that approach, focusing instead on depth and engagement.

Educators across the country were sold. In Milwaukee, the teachers’ union touted the approach as a “renaissance in the educational system.” When Kilpatrick toured Minneapolis, he sold out the newly built Orpheum Theater for three nights.

School administrators also began to promote projects — as a corrective to what the superintendent of the Cleveland schools called “the traditional fact-cramming method.” In declaring his support for the Project Method, Milwaukee’s superintendent contrasted it with “Fordizing” children — a reference to the assembly-line manufacture of automobiles.

“Today,” he argued, “we are heaping endless amounts of things to know upon [students] and giving [them] nothing to do.”

For the most part, this is the same case being made by today’s PBL advocates. A PBL consulting firm, for instance, recently likened a typical classroom to an “unimaginative 80-minute-long assembly-line of paperwork review.” And as the founder of a PBL-focused charter school put it: “Our mission is to end assembly line education in California.”

Supporters may be overdramatizing the point; most teachers vary their instructional approaches in the classroom, and many classroom assessments take the form of projects. Still, the excesses of the standards and accountability era are hard to deny.

The return of the Project Method, then, is merely evidence that the policy pendulum has begun its downswing.

Why do we see these pendulum swings so often in education? As education historian Larry Cuban has argued, they are the inevitable result of policy dilemmas, which arise when two highly valued aims — such as breadth and depth — are irreconcilable with each other. In lieu of an obvious solution, policymakers are forced to make a difficult choice. And that choice is often a reactive one, responding to dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Not all education policy works this way, swinging back and forth between incompatible aims. Much about public education, in fact, has evolved in a fairly linear way over the years, improving as it changes. Schools today run longer, more consistently, and more coherently than schools of the past. Educators are better qualified and students are more fairly treated. It is hard to argue against a story of gradual progress.

Yet much of education policy tends to be cyclical, rather than linear, in nature. What one generation pursues, the next may throw out the window. Unable to “fix” a dilemma, policymakers strike a compromise to manage it. Over time, the flaws of that compromise reveal themselves, and the existing policy consensus begins to dissolve. Eventually, a new consensus develops around a different strategy. For a while, at least, the dilemma fades. But over time dissatisfaction emerges again.

Displeased with an emphasis on “fact-cramming,” educators of the 1920s embraced the Project Method. The heyday of the Project Method, in turn, led directly to concerns about curricular rigor. That next period, which produced the classic breadth-oriented curriculum, the Advanced Placement program, ended with a swing back toward projects and authentic tasks. Eventually it swung away again.

The present infatuation with Project Based Learning, or any of its close cousins — Expeditionary Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Deeper Learning, and so on — is the predictable response to the standards and accountability movement that has dominated public education for the past two decades.

Whatever the benefits of a broad standards-aligned curriculum, it has come at a cost. And over time, that cost has become clearer. Today, many educators and policy leaders are coming to believe, as educator Ted Sizer once put it, that “the curriculum overloaded with stuff has to give way.”

If the past is any indication, the excesses of the standards and accountability movement will soon exhaust the support that remains. When that happens, the policy consensus will shift away from coverage and back towards inquiry.

If projects are to withstand the test of time, however, advocates would be wise to remember why it is that reforms appear again and again and again. The further the pendulum swings in one direction, the faster it will swing in the other. Perhaps, this time, a little equilibrium is in order.