When I was a child, growing up in Los Angeles and the deserts of Southern California, I became obsessed with the missions that the Roman Catholic Church established throughout the state. I do not remember what started it, but perhaps it was my father’s stories about going to Mass every week in one of the missions when he was a child in San Diego. Or maybe it was the notion that the missions were sort of like California’s castles. Whatever it was, the missions offered my kind of enchantment.
At some point – perhaps it started as a school assignment, but I am not sure – I had an idea that I would construct a serious replica of San Juan Capistrano in particular. I loved the stories about the swallows returning to the mission on St. Joseph’s Day every year, and I even wore a tiny blue swallow pin on my shirts.
Coming from a family that does approximately nothing halfway, my Capistrano project took over our entire garage. At dinnertime, we would talk about how to make adobe bricks and a tile roof and why the missions were located where they were. We ordered miniatures of native Californians, priests, and animals to stage in different rooms to carry out the various functions of the mission (no easy feat in pre-Amazon days). We built water fountains. It was a project that lasted for several weeks, and everyone had something to say about it – even our neighbors.
To pull off this project required a lot of research. I read endless books about mission life, about the controversies of how native populations were treated, and so on. We visited the mission as a family and sketched its layout, noting which rooms were used for what along our tour.
Even now, being middle-aged, I can still tell you about the architectural features of that mission. After I moved to Texas to attend college, I forced my husband (then college boyfriend) to tour several missions with me.
I am telling this story as an example of what project-based learning actually is. Just as education hipsters have effectively ruined the term “unschooling,” they are doing pretty much the same thing with project-based learning. They will post pictures of what are essentially arts and crafts on social media and describe it as “project-based learning.” (This is particularly true among lower grade level public school teachers, who find endless ways to dress up their busywork assignments rhetorically and imply they are doing something more serious.) As with unschooling, what is missing from this scheme is, well, actual educational content.
Authentic project-based learning involves an extended period of performing original research and critical thinking, in order to create something new or solve some sort of real-world problem. It involves analysis and invoking knowledge across academic disciplines. If you don’t have a bibliography or mentor, you aren’t doing it.
This also implies that a child has done the boring work of developing analysis skills beforehand. Kids can’t simply jump into a project from an academic vacuum. You aren’t going to do a project tracking the growth of bacteria if you can’t read a bar chart. Project-based learning is not a substitute for that sort of thing. All the cool kids hate textbooks now – and I try to minimize the use of textbooks too – but you aren’t going to get very far in education trying to turn every little detail into a project.