The Real History Of Project-Based Learning

by | Jan 20, 2015 | STEM Education Info

When teachers across America talk about the origins of Project-Based Learning, the name John Dewey often comes up. Dewey wrote a book in 1897 called “My Pedagogical Creed,” which outlined the concept of “learning by doing.” While many teachers embrace Dewey’s writings as the true birth of Project-Based Learning, a quick review of history shows things a bit differently.

By the time Dewey had written his book at the end of the nineteenth century, education had already become standardized on many levels. For this reason, his concept of “learning by doing” piqued the interest of schools that already had education plans in place that relied heavily on book learning.

All of that said, “learning by doing” is a concept that dates back to… well, no one really knows. Why? Because as humans, the concept of learning by “doing” is innate and intuitive.

Think back to your days as a child. Your perceptions of the world around you were formed by your five senses. When you accidentally placed your hand on a hot stove, your finger burned. You learned the hard way that a hot stove will cause burns. In essence, you learned by doing… and you remembered your lesson well. A parent probably told you not to put your hand on the stove at one point, but the lesson was hard to remember until you learned it firsthand.

Even the cavemen learned everything by simply doing. Hunting and gathering methods were based on trial and error… and in those days, it was a matter of survival.

“Learning by doing” hasn’t always been a matter of survival, however. The human race has leveraged “learning by doing” for thousands of years in all manners of ways.  From the 8th to the 5th centuries BC, the Ancient Chinese created many iterations of walls made from rammed earth before settling on a brick and mortar design that would build the greatest wall in history. In the 1500s, Galileo observed and tracked the retrograde action of the planets in the sky and drew the conclusion that the Earth was not the center of the universe. In 1664, Sir Isaac Newton watched an apple fall from a tree and began to formulate theories about the force called gravity based on his scientific observations.

It’s no coincidence that most great discoveries in history were a result of “learning by doing”. The bottom line is that the information contained in books is information that has been uncovered by another person from another time, whereas “learning by doing” is associated with discovery and innovation.

So what bearing does this long history of “learning by doing” have on modern day Project-Based Learning?

When it comes to learning in the classroom, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to teachers that Project-Based Learning works well.  By implementing this learning technique, teachers are in essence reenacting the discovery phase of learning. Students are presented with a problem and they are given the tools they need to find the solution through collaboration. Instead of simply reading and accepting a concept, they are instead rediscovering it for themselves. As human beings, we seem to learn best by discovering things for ourselves.

In short, Dewey did not create the concept of Project-Based Learning… he merely helped put the concept of “learning by doing” back on the radars of educators all over the world. Now, more than a century later, Project-Based Learning is being used in classrooms across the globe. If you would like to learn more Project-Based Learning, get in touch with the team at StratoStar. We can help you implement Project-Based Learning in your classroom.