I've had more professional experience with "real life" projects in rural education, rural health, refugee services, and so on, than with "project-based learning" as conducted in the classroom. I continue to do a fair amount of reading in project management and how it benefits from the fields of knowledge management and organizational learning, and have been contemplating for several months how there ought to be more convergence of learning from real-life projects with learning from classroom projects.
One major difference between these two kinds of projects is this: Real-life projects (please be patient -- I know that classrooms are 'real' too and I'm working on a fairer way to distinguish) have as their main objective the creation of something you can leave behind for others; these projects are evaluated for the effectiveness and appropriateness of their outcomes.
Classroom projects, on the other hand, will also create something, but the main objective is that the persons who design and execute the project will have also achieved one of the school's learning objectives, and they will be graded according to what is learned; ideally a classroom project might even fail, yet the student could still succeed if she/he learned the intended lesson inherent in the project. In high school I tried to manufacture rayon in a lab experiment; I failed to create rayon but I still got a good grade on my analysis of why the experiment failed.
So can project-based learning learn from projects? Managers interested in organizational learning look at how to learn from mistakes, how to learn together, and how to improve their success rate. Classroom projects, though, are still going to put priority on learning subject content: biology, history, physics. The assessment might include the student's collaboration, communication, and meta-learning, but these will still be secondary to the content learning objectives.
I'll keep mulling over this during the summer, and will try to put together some readings that would be of special interest to teachers who supervise classroom projects. Your comments are welcome!
Image is of children participating in the planning of a village reconstruction project in India following the tsunami of 2004.
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