Written by guest blogger Natalie Hunter, who is a blogger for onlineschools.org.
Most public schools, especially high schools, function by a bureaucratic model designed in the early 20th century. Developed when the industrial age was at its peak, many educators refer to this as the “factory model”. College was not necessary for most workers to be able to earn a good living, so only the privileged few attended college. The factory model of education provided college-preparatory coursework for those few, and provided training in vocational skills for the many others. It mirrored the general working environment of its time, in which the managers and supervisors were well-educated and the rank-and-file workers did what they were told to do by the managers. In schools, teachers simply told students the information they needed to learn in the form of lectures and strictly structured individual assignments. Students were expected to regurgitate the information in examinations. If they didn’t, they were shunted into vocational training.
In the information age, many educators now believe that the factory model is inadequate to prepare students for the workplace. It is no longer possible to easily earn a good living with only high-school level education; for most jobs at least two post-secondary years are required. Workplaces have changed as well; there is much more emphasis on collaboration and teamwork, and far less top-down management. Workers are responsible not only for bringing problems to the attention of managers, but for helping to solve those problems.
In response to the changing times, many new educational theories and methods have been developed. Unschooling, attending school online, and the concept of Personal Learning Networks are all solutions that have arisen in opposition to the sorely outdated factory model. One of the most prevalent solutions is known as PBL, for Problem-Based Learning (or alternatively Project-Based Learning). PBL was first developed in medical schools as a method of immersing future doctors in the thought processes they would need to use later, at an early phase of their training. Students were presented with actual patient situations and expected to find solutions by researching the observed problems and coming up with answers on their own. Often they worked in groups instead of individually, and everyone in the group received the same grade on the project.
Project-based learning has been implemented in many public schools around the world, particularly in science classes, though it has also been used in other subjects such as history. As PBL is used in secondary schools, proponents argue that students are more engaged in the learning process because it is tailored to their interests. They further argue that its focus on group work models and teaches social and teamwork skills that students will eventually need in workplaces. Critics of PBL argue that if students are allowed too much freedom to choose their projects they might miss basic principles and have difficulty meeting mandated educational standards. Also, students need to have a certain grounding in basic skills in order to be successful in PBL. For this reason PBL has been used only in a very limited way in elementary classrooms. Basic reading and math skills are difficult to acquire by the PBL method.
A typical PBL approach begins with the teacher presenting the general subject area–for example acid-base reactions in chemistry. She or he would then give examples of how such reactions are used in “real life” and encourage students to find other examples relevant to their interests. Thus a student with an interest in cooking might study the chemistry of baking soda and vinegar. One with an interest in art might investigate the chemical composition and manufacture of different types of paint. After identifying areas of interest, students are guided as they plan and carry out projects related to their interest within the general topic. The budding chef might experiment with different proportions of various ingredients and compare results; the artist might analyze paints and try to relate their composition to their appearance in a painting. At the conclusion of the project, each student or group of students makes a written and/or oral presentation of their work to the teacher and to the rest of the class, and then ideas for future projects are considered. The paint project, for example, might lead into a project on the physical properties of light and color.
One thing on which all educators agree is that all students must be encouraged to do the best work they can to be prepared for future workplaces. The goal of many educational researchers is to find the most effective ways to help them to do that