Why Project-based Learning Works — A Personal Story

It’s really not that complicated. We all learn best by doing. Here’s an example from my life.

I was doing poorly in 10th grade English. I was a terrible student. I had no interest in school or what I was studying, I had not developed any study habits at all, and I wasn’t even interested in developing them. So although I loved to read (and write), I was bombing English, a course I should have “done well” in. I put “done well” in quotes because I question even what “doing well” traditionally means in education — usually good grades, which is not the same as learning.

My teacher struck a deal with me. If I did a project of my own choosing that was related to some sort of literature (my choice), and the project showed enough effort and insight, I would pass the course. I guess at that point, my grades were so bad that no amount of cramming or extra credit was going to earn me a passing grade. And kudos to a very forward-thinking English teacher! She was willing to go outside the box to help out a very bored and disengaged student.

My presentation, as I recall, combined a live poetry reading with a light show and music. My class all trooped down to the AV room, where I read poems by Wiliam Blake, accompanied by some musique concrete (something based on Kafka’s In the Penal Colony), a light show overhead done by a friend, and my reading of a selection of my favorite Blake poems. It was a success by any standard. I worked hard on choosing the poems, the background music, the lights, and arranged it all for maximum effect. And I passed 10th grade English.

So why did this work?

First, because I was given the freedom to choose what part of “English” I studied. I don’t think Blake was even in that year’s curriculum, but I loved his stuff. Second, I did something unique and original with the subject matter. Third, I had that “authentic audience”, not just a paper I wrote to be read only by my teacher. There are probably other factors in play here, but those are the big ones.

Now at the space of decades passed, I remember almost nothing of what I “learned” in 10th grade. But I will never forget that moment of bringing my interpretation of Blake’s surreal poetry to my classmates. And that experience is one major reason why, all this time later, as a teacher, I believe in and practice what we now call “project-based learning.” It was transformative for me.

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