Today the foundational philosophy for an increasing number of progressive schools across the country is project-based learning (PBL). Although the theoretical underpinnings for this approach to education are many, few hearken back to the origins of this once famous national conversation. Below I explore the origins of PBL and attempt to navigate practices and approaches employed by schools a century ago that ultimately informed practices today.
By the end of the nineteenth century the industrial revolution had not only transformed the American economy, but it had also impacted nearly all facets of social and cultural life in the growing and increasingly prosperous nation. As the country answered the call to educate all of its children, industry and big business showed the way with a centralized, efficient approach. This common schools reform movement, led by the administrative progressives, endeavored to accomplish many objectives, chiefly to transform the American school into a vehicle that could Americanize newly arrived immigrants and to prepare students for the workforce.1 By 1920, despite a prolonged battle with those opposing this force, advocates for a standardized education that prepared students for life beyond school carried the day. School boards, dominated by the business elite, began using procedures that resembled a corporate board of directors rather than a grass roots board representing the diverse voices of those they served (Tyack, 1976, p. 128). With the one room school house a distant memory and the comprehensive high school becoming omnipresent, students across the country attended class at the sound of a bell in the most rational and efficient manner possible.
Before long, though, reformers emerged to counter this movement, namely Francis Parker, John Dewey and a host of others. Termed “Progressives” their movement to reform education at scale became a national conversation and produced dozens of academic journals, hundreds of books and thousands of scholarly articles. Indeed, Larry Cuban claims that at its height some 20% of American students were enrolled at schools utilizing some form of progressive education, including the child centered approach, open classrooms, and the project method (Qtd in Spring, 2008, p. 302). Progressive education included an assortment of philosophies and approaches to reform at the start of the twentieth century, which resulted in some tension among the various camps. But, as suggested by scholar Samuel Everett (1938), there was a “common orientation which tended to unite and made meaningful their common efforts” (p. 431). Perhaps more than any other reason, it was this commitment to reform that allowed progressive education to endure the ages. One wing of this movement that tended to unite more than divide was the one devoted to a curriculum inspired by and designed with the project.
First identified and then added to the lexicon of the progressive education movement by renowned education reformer William Heard Kilpatrick, the project revealed itself to him while observing a classroom in Georgia in 1892. From there he entered a period of constant and excited theorizing. Ultimately, the timid writer put pen to paper and released a work that would catapult him to international fame, “The Project Method.” Note, though, that famed philosopher John Dewey deserves much credit for sewing the seeds of this revolution in education, for he framed a new approach in the otherwise industrialized, well-disciplined milieu of the early twentieth century. That said, it was the loyal Deweyan disciple Kilpatrick who expanded upon and, much more significantly, implemented altered versions of Dewey’s theories. Indeed, as scholar Harold Rugg (1928) points out Kilpatrick was excited to be part of a “vigorous and widespread reform movement in education” (p. 53). Instead of resting on his laurels in Columbia’s ivory tower, Kilpatrick possessed such faith and hope in the progressive trajectory that he boldly claimed, “There is no going back now”(p. 53).
But what exactly made this reform so spectacular for Kilpatrick and his ilk?
In short, the thrust came in the form of Kilaptrick’s famed “Project Method.” Over time several definitions emerged operationalizing “project,” but it was Kilpatrick who captured it best: “A wholehearted purposeful activity in a social environment” (1918, p.2). This definition encapsulates not only Kilpatrick’s vision for schools, but also reveals what he detested most about traditional schools of the time: teacher driven, overly rigid structures where rote memorization and passivity dominated the learning. Contemporary scholar and devotee of Kilpatrick, John Stevenson (1922), narrowed the aims of the Project Method as follows:
(a) Reasoning vs. memory of information.
(b) Conduct vs. information for its own sake.
(c) Natural setting for learning vs. artificial setting for learning.
(d) The priority of the problem vs. the priority of the principles.
These four aims successfully sum up the core of the Project Method in that they not only describe the aim, but also contrast it with the predominating feature of the common public school at the time.
As the Project Method expanded in popularity so too did the word “project.” Much to Kilrtrick’s chagrin — and that of his colleagues and fellow researchers — they discovered the word “project” affiliated with a wide variety of curricula, much of which did not meet the expectations set forth by Kilpatrick. For example, as explained by Stevenson in 1922, “simple laboratory exercises” were referred to as projects worthy of the new reform rather than identified for what they actually were: simply crafted opportunities for student self activity. And so Kilpatrick spent as much time explaining what a project was as what it was not.
The successful project, as described nearly a century ago and holding true with today’s reform movement as embodied by progressive schools, must meet several criteria. What follows are the core components of “wholehearted purposeful activity.”
An initial and vital component of a proper project is the setting of said project. It is essential for teachers, far removed from the fields they are teaching, to reconnect the students with the actual setting of the topic being studied. Thus, in lieu of abstraction, students can learn in the most authentic, natural setting possible whether the theater, the forest, the lab or the archive. Most commonly the opposite is the case according to Stevenson (1922): “The system of instruction was developed with the result that the material was often taken out of its concrete setting, was abstracted, codified, and arranged in systematic form for teaching” (p. 194). It was therefore the responsibility of the teacher to either create the most natural, genuine setting possible in the classroom or actually venture out to the setting itself.
An excursion outside of the school’s walls revealed a concrete effort to lend the project greater authenticity. Furthermore, by linking students with the outside world, projects not only added to the rich curriculum, they helped students hone democratic principles. As biographer John Beinke (1998) suggests that Kilpatrick saw projects and the excursions affiliated with them as the ideal course to authentically link the student with democratic society (p. 103). With such an authentic connection students would be contributing members of the community rather than passive consumers as in autocratic Germany (Kilpatrick, like many of his contemporaries, were highly suspicious of the autocratic, Prussian system of education and government). Scholar and community leader Paul Pierce (1938) viewed student excursions through a different, more pragmatic lens in that he saw them as the best way to utilize the community’s resources for the greatest good (p. 83). His passion for connecting the local community with its school manifested itself largely in the form of scientific studies and statistical surveys carried out by the students in truly authentic settings. At all costs, Pierce contends that a curriculum must be authentic, deal with real life, and connect to the real world otherwise it risks reverting to the norm of “an abstract study of remote life as presented in textbooks” (p. 87).
Perhaps ironically, only half a century earlier, teachers did not need to exert such effort to connect their students with the community. The reason being that most schools in the U.S. in the early to mid nineteenth century had only one room and were often used for a variety of community purposes, including town hall meetings, religious services, and social functions. Taken together, scholar and historian David Tyack (1974) described this as “an organically related system of human relationships” (p. 15). And so with the schoolhouse intrinsically connected to the community’s fabric the separation and isolation of twentieth century schools simply did not exist. Educators of the previous era had a great deal to worry about (lack of running water, irregular schedules based on the crop, wide ranging student ages and abilities, etc.), but connecting the community in an authentic setting was not one of them.
Once the authentic setting had been established, progressive educators turned to the content of the subject matter. The Project Method made clear that the content students learned should not be designed simply to prepare them for life once outside of school, but rather should resemble life itself. Moreover, subject matter, according to scholar Herbert Kliebard (2004), “was not simply to be learned but was to function directly in accomplishing human purposes” (p. 140). So instead of studying science students were to behave as scientists (or historians or engineers), actively working towards a concrete final product. While the degree of student interest might vary from project to project, intrinsic motivation — what scholars of the early twentieth century often called “spontaneous interest” — surely augmented as the authenticity and complexity of the project increased. In short, Stevenson echoed Kilpatrick’s notion that projects aroused more curiosity and thinking in students than any other approach in education.
Common practice in the early twentieth century progressive education indicated that the actual design of a project should follow these four steps: purposing, planning, executing and judging (Cremin, 1961, p. 218). Purposing involved an exploration by the teacher into the interests of the students in the classroom while also investigating a topic with sufficient authenticity to engage students over a lengthy period. Once established, the teacher planned all components of the project, including scheduling excursions and designing the detailed aspects of the curriculum while also allowing room for spontaneous changes. Executing the project involved students using their minds and hands simultaneously to study, investigate, design, build, analyze, and create. Judging, or assessment, was the final step and involved much more than an exam. In fact, projects sometimes concluded with culminating events like The Parker Fair where each class or student contributed a final product. It was a chance to bring the community together and, according to one teacher, “stimulate children, parents, and teachers to many types of creative expression” (Cooke, n.d., p. 118). Stevenson (1922) offers another example where a class that had studied sugar (a mineral vital to the local economy and therefore deeply connected to the students’ lives) had exhibited their final products to other grade levels. Their books about sugar were, at times, “crude” but ultimately were “treasured possessions” for the students who had worked so diligently to create them (p. 238-239).
In addition to being impressed with an exhibition and final product in lieu of an exam, Stevenson also found great satisfaction in the above project in its integration of several subjects, including geography, history, art, and writing. Therefore, true projects showcase an integration of the content. For example, in order to complete their books about sugar and the trade routes that supplied it, students performed research and drew maps in geography class while writing the book’s text in English class. As part of their research they wrote to companies seeking information, forcing them first to learn how to compose a professional business letter. When companies replied to their letters the students’ “faces beamed with pleasure, and each one, without exception, asked permission to take his reply home to show his parents” (Stevenson, 1922, p. 236). In nearly the same year, several states away, the Superintendent of Schools for Huntington, West Virginia was delighted to see student projects “naturally” expanded to include a variety of different subjects including public speaking (Wright, 1922). Projects like this corroborated for progressive thinkers of the time that an authentic project could and should reduce the divisive walls of subject areas and instead embrace their intrinsic integration.
In a seeming jab at John Dewey and Francis Parker, Rugg (1928) suggested that Kilpatrick, through his Project Method, “had done more to directly transform the attitudes of teachers and administrators than the more obscure methods of his predecessors” (p. 47). To be sure widespread experimentation gripped hundreds of schools across the country, from a small obscure high school in Ojai, California to an established and exceptionally prestigious school in Boston. Schools, eager to avoid the standardization of their students and the “orgy of testing” gripping the country, embraced the Project Method as an alternative that often proved popular with teachers, students and communities. Although Kilpatrick’s Project Method made him famous, his true skill and passion came in the form of oratory (he would eventually teach 35,000 students while at Columbia). Together with several colleagues from various institutions he helped found, and served as editor, for the Journal of Education Method. This publication emerged as a springboard for scholars of the progressive era, prompting a national conversation around reform and resistance to the dominant pedagogy of the time. But times would change.
The Journal of Education Method, the PEA, the philosophies surrounding the Project Method, and even the progressive movement as a whole fell victim to the politics of a rapidly changing world. With the launching of Sputnik in 1957, the Soviet Union set off a massive shift in American public opinion toward schools and the progressive education movement in general (what Cremin (1961) deemed, “a bitter orgy of pedagogical soul-searching”). After several decades of success, the pendulum of reform swung once again. Led this time by scholars who exploited the current events of the time, the attack on progressive education came rapidly and with great force. Their message, advanced largely with the help of eminent scholar Arthur Bestor, urged Americans to harken back to the days when schools solely provided an intellectual training to prepare students for the rigorous work days ahead. The message struck a chord not only in academic circles but also with the public at large with articles in Life and U.S. News & World Report. What’s more, Cremin (1961) faults the movement’s rapid decline to postwar conservative shifts, a movement too far removed from the original fight, unrealistic expectations of teachers to implement a project-oriented, integrated curriculum, and the aging of the movement’s founders among other reasons.
While Kilpatrick biographer John Beinke (1998) concluded that The Project Method had a “mixed legacy,” he did not share Cremin’s foresight, who predicted in his seminal history of progressive education that, “Perhaps (the authentic progressive vision) only awaited the reformation and resuscitation that would ultimately derive from a larger resurgence of reform” (p. 253). At least one component of this resurgence has arrived in the form of project-based learning.
Some schools have earned their place as schools that have proven Cremin right. Resisting the dominant culture of standardized testing, buttressed with expensive textbooks, these schools have forged ahead, invoking many of progressive education’s past philosophies. Most importantly, they have adopted the project as the primary conduit of learning, for past scholars had demonstrated its power to engage students with curricula they found authentic in an environment they found natural. Despite the deep and profound correlation between life and learning, many schools today actively attempt – and often succeed – to segregate the two.
Project based learning has endured a century of exposure in the often tumultuous realm of education reform. Traces of this philosophical approach to education abound from the early twentieth century to the present, with its popularity in flux with the politics of the time, waxing and waning, but never truly disappearing. As the twenty-first century began PBL experienced a renaissance led by, among others, High Tech High, that has yet to determine its own legacy. That said, schools exist throughout the nation that push PBL as their primary approach to teaching and learning. As increasing numbers of schools move toward a PBL approach to education, it is all the more important to acknowledge the efforts of their forbearers and to learn from the philosophy that ultimately will prove to inspire a revolution in education.
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