One of the newest buzzwords going around the education communities is project based learning. From what I can gather, the students are given a task or goal and work to accomplish that goal and may present their process or results as part of an assessment.
Clearly, project based learning has many, many advantages and could be used to promote several of the “soft skills” (although I belelieve these soft skills to be the most important outcome of a quality education) including: cooperation, communication, problem solving, creative thinking, critical thinking, self reflection, etc. Yet, I can see how many teachers would raise concerns about the content of the courses using PBL. While I nearly have a masters degree in chemistry, I am not much of a content person. I feel all of my students will gain from promotion of rational and reflective thinking while less than 1% will benefit from increased content. Furthermore, PBL could more accurately model how science really works. When students understand the true nature of science, they might see science as more interesting and will be able to more thoroughly engage in public discourse about scientific issues (for example, someone who truly understands the nature of science realizes that the evolution “debate” is one of science vs non-science and should not be a debate, each party should leave the other alone.)
So, because content is important, how can we structure PBL in a way that covers content in a developmentally appropriate way. If we just send kids off to learn about X, they may head straight for content over their heads. The role of the teacher is to provide scaffolding and guide students through a path of learning and modify that path as needed-providing concrete representations first and building to more abstract. Yet, when students are given freedom, they usually start abstract (reading) and end concrete (pictures or models in their presentations). Yet, because they don’t have the background knowledge of a teacher, they do not know how to represent a concept concretely, or even what a concrete representation is!
While I am perhaps raising more questions than providing answers, I think wrestling with the questions is important. I have used PBL in my class extensively (just didn’t realize it had a name), but I do wonder if PBL could be taken too far. If the teacher is too far removed from planning the instruction and becomes ONLY the guide on the side, are we setting kids up for failure because they will not have the important concrete experience on which they can draw? Sure they might produce some amazing things (which is great) but will they only learn how to produce a product rather than deeply understanding a new concept?