Of the many theories of learning and education, the most successful are those that get learners involved in the creative process more than passively consuming and memorising information.
As educational researcher John Dewey is noted for stressing—we learn by doing.
Project-based learning takes full advantage of this fact by tasking students with using all of their abilities to solve complex, real-world problems. It puts students in control so that their curiosity and motivation can shine through.
There’s no easy right-or-wrong answer at the end of it, but a presentation detailing all the hard work—the research, critical thinking, insights and solutions.
While mostly relied on in schools, it’s easily applicable to any adult self-educator looking to escape the textbook and tackle legitimate issues.
Here we’ll explore how to go about starting your own project and building a learning portfolio using your work.
Projects and Project-Based Learning
First, it’s important to set project-based learning apart from the usual way projects are assigned.
In school, teachers often assign projects to students as a way for them to apply what they’ve already learned. PBLWorks calls these “dessert projects,” as they’re short and sweet.
Dessert projects generally have right or wrong answers as students are trying to accurately reflect what they’ve been taught. Even though there is some creativity, there’s less autonomy as you follow an already established path.
Project-based learning goes a step further. Rather than learning first and then creating something, you start the project before you’ve figured things out—you learn from doing the project itself.
There’s more work involved than in dessert projects. You are in charge from start to finish, you play the role of scientist or investigator and must draw your own conclusions.
The projects in project-based learning are open-ended, they can take as long as you need to examine the problem, formulate different solutions, and present the results.
This all makes for a great learning experience. You learn in each step of the process, you make mistakes and reach dead-ends, form hypotheses and test ideas, and end up with a deeper form of knowledge.
Each project will be its own unique journey, dependant on what problem you want to tackle, but there are a few general steps: pick your problem, do your research, present your solution.
1. Pick Your Problem
It should be an open-ended, complex or difficult problem. Not just a description of something or an issue that has a well-established answer.
Remember—the goal isn’t to receive good marks for being ‘right,’ but wrestling with the unknown to find novel solutions, questioning and refining your ideas, and bringing together knowledge from a wide range of relevant fields.
- How can your city reduce its carbon footprint?
- How should we establish governance on the moon?
- How can we improve the lives of farm animals?
- How should we study the nature of consciousness?
- How can we ensure the safe development of AI?
While plenty of people have dug into these puzzles, there is little widespread agreement and there may be more than one effective solution.
2. Do Your Research
Try to gather a wide range of data and information from the relevant domains, identify sub-problems, and spend some time filtering and organising the most important insights.
You can let your curiosity guide you down the rabbit hole here, you might hit dead ends or you might find hidden gems. Either way, you’ll learn something.
There are plenty of online tools to help you organise this information—note-taking apps like Notion and Evernote, you can create spreadsheets on Google Drive, even Trello has made a great template for project-based learning.
Once you have a good idea of the scope of the problem you can start brainstorming ideas and designing solutions. Be critical of them, test them to the extent that you can, and don’t be afraid to reject them.
3. Present Your Solution
Presenting your project-based learning is where you get to show off your work.
It should not only highlight the subject and problem but your research method and thought processes, it’s also a great opportunity to be creative in how you display this information.
Some things to include:
- What is the problem you wanted to solve? Why did it interest you?
- Why is it a problem? Why hasn’t it already been solved?
- How did you approach the problem-solving task? What was your process?
- What solution/s did you arrive at and how?
- What did you learn from it?
You can use storytelling, case studies, illustrations, videos—anything that helps to convey your learning in an engaging and thought-provoking manner.
A lot of great inspiration in this area can be found in the portfolios of UX designers. They tackle interesting problems relating to how people interact with different products, and need to detail their process to prospective clients.
Here are some great examples from Elizabeth Lin, Gloria Lo, Olivia Truong, and Zara Drei.
Learn by Doing
When it’s all said and done you can put your project up on your website for the world to see. Then you can tackle another problem, and pretty soon you’ll have a nice looking portfolio of projects.
If you turn to project-based learning to help in your job-seeking, an online portfolio will show prospective employers a lot more than a simple resume.
But even if it’s not in the service of a job, project-based learning is a great challenge and learning experience.
It’s not easy, but it can be enjoyable. Your curiosity and creativity can lead you to unexpected ideas, and you get to engage your own critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.
And that’s precisely why it’s so effective. You don’t learn by ingesting information, you learn by creating knowledge. As John Dewey said, “education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process.”