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Learning Theories

In order for learning to be effective it must motivate students by engaging them in authentic, real world learning experiences. In order to do this teachers need to have a variety of teaching and learning strategies to meet the learning needs of their students. Over the years I’ve come to realized that project-based learning, problem-based learning, and inquiry based learning , which are constructivist models, allow for the best synthesis of instructional models within the classroom. 

PBL (project-based learning) is not just ’hands on learning" or just "doing projects." It involves framing a real-world scenario that ties the learning of skills and content to the completion of a product. It gives students a reason to learn because they can see the connection between what they are learning and how it is pertinent to their lives. 

Good projects have constraints and negotiables.  Constraints are those things over which the teacher must maintain  control.  Often this involve the standards that must be met, accuracy of content, due dates,  general behaviorial standards, etc.  Negotiables are those things that the students control.  It is important that the students have control over their projects .  This helps them become completely engaged in the learning process.

Another important element of PBL is the product needs to be produced for a real audience that goes beyond the teacher or just the classroom.  Students can present their projects to a panel of experts in the field.  They can hold exibitions or "trade shows."  They can post their projects on the Interent or can show their projects for local audiences.  There are many ways for students to exhibit their projects for an appropriate real audience.

PBL is also collaborative in nature.  Business and industry (Project Managers International--PMI, SCANS and 21st Century Skills) tell us they need workers who can work effectively on collaborative teams.  Through PBL students learn to manage projects, time, and responsibility. In doing so they develop a positive work ethic. 

Students also learn research, written and oral communication skills through PBL.  Technology becomes an natural tool both for research and for production to support learning and the creation of their final product.

Once a project has been framed and introduced  to the students  the teacher becomes a facilitator, guide and co-learner.  Just like an athletic coach is on the side of his/her team helping them to "win" the game against and opponent or "external enemy" the teacher is now on the side of his/her students helping them prepare their final projects for an external audience.  This is a very different role for most teachers.

Assessment is a critical component of PBL.  Assessment is ongoing or formative and is designed to help students be successful both in the quality of their final produects and in the learning of the necessary skills and content. Summative assessment is not the end, but the basis for reflection or metacognition so the students will do even better on their next project.

A Little History of PBL
(Note:  This section was originally written for the 
Foothill College Krause Center for Innovation EWYL Institute)

John Dewey, American philosopher and author of  Democracy and Education wrote about student-directed, student-centered learning more than one hundred years ago. He saw democracy as a tool that each person could use to further his or her unique talents to make a productive contribution to society. He felt that when a student has a hands-on experience, learning is enhanced by the "doing," and this active learning produces more understanding of content than the traditional authoritarian instructional model of the time.

At that time, the economy was changing from an agriculture base to a manufacturing base. Schools changed to meet the new challenges of the economy; the twentieth century worker needed to be less of an artisan or farmer and more of a highly disciplined individual with highly specialized skills, capable of living within rigid limits and time-schedules. This was the educational model of the industrial age.

The invention of the Intelligence Test in 1905 by Alfred Binet had a dramatic impact on U.S. culture, and education. Lewis Terman, a Stanford University psychology professor, believed that IQ tests could be used to gauge the intelligence of the general the population. Consequently intelligence tests were used to rank order people from being imbecilic to being geniuses. Schools began to place students in classes based on their IQ scores. Thus, IQ scores determined the type of education they received which in turn placed them in the appropriate socio-economic strata of society. During World War I, the U.S. Army embraced intelligence testing to determine which inductees would go to the front line and which would get the desk jobs.

This sorting of people was based on two types of intelligence—verbal and performance. The verbal tests were based on a knowledge of vocabulary, and the performance tests included items such as arranging a set of pictures into a sequence that could tell a story, or to remember sequences of numbers. Other forms of intelligence were not recognized.

During the past century research in cognitive psychology and learning, gave rise to use of project-based learning in many schools. This model of teaching and learning has changed the view of education as a training model to an empowerment model.

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist who studied the development of intelligence, identified four stages of mental development in children.

Research in cognitive psychology and learning, coupled with the enormous changes the world has experienced this past century, has given rise to the impetus for using a project-based learning strategy for teaching. This model of teaching and learning has changed the view of education from a training model to an empowerment model.