After spending two or three decades in school, each of us can likely point to a few teachers scattered over the course of our educational experiences who inspired us in some way, be it intellectually, spiritually, morally, or otherwise. Sometimes what we remember about them is what they actually taught us, but more often than not, I suspect, our memories are more visceral and emotional - we remember the excitement that we had for their class, our desire to learn more from them, and the life lessons that we possessed upon emerging from their classrooms.
Can a Project-Based Learning (PBL) classroom produce this type of inspiration? As readers of this blog are well aware, I am a big proponent of PBL as a more natural and mature approach to learning, and a way to ensure that more of our students are more actively learning more of the time, and in a way that will result in better and deeper understanding of the material. I fully think that it is worth the extra effort that it requires of teachers, both on the preparation level and in the classroom on a day-to-day basis. The more that a student's day is conducted in PBL (and related type) environments, the more likely that student is to have a rich and meaningful educational experience, and particularly an experience that he or she is meaningfully engaged in.
However, my question aims for the next level - can this produce the type of inspiration that we recall receiving from the best of our own teachers? Where did that inspiration come from? Did it come from finally understanding the concept behind the Pythagorean Theorem or the causes of World War I? Did it result from the feeling of satisfaction that came from completing a creative project demonstrating a principle in physics? Was it in any way related to the curriculum?
My sense is that the actual curriculum is merely a context for inspiration. The fact that I love American History is not simply because it is a good story. More likely, it is due to the fact that over a six year span, five of those years were spent with two teachers who demonstrated a genuine interest in their students, a passionate love for their subject, and a single-minded devotion to trying to imbue their young charges with the same feeling. While not every student caught the fever, it was inevitable that some would - and many did. Can this happen in a PBL classroom? Does the less-structured and less-teacher-centric nature of the PBL classroom provide a framework within which the best teachers can connect with their students in a way that they will not only facilitate learning but will be able to inspire an enthusiasm that will remain far beyond the end of the course?
My sense is that PBL definitely provides an opportunity for inspiring students, but like everything else in PBL, it takes more work. A PBL teacher is not going to elevate students through brilliant oratory or by overwhelming them with encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. Rather, the inspiration will come through the working with small groups of students, through helping students organize themselves as they struggle to direct their own learning, through providing every student with everything that they need to emerge as independent learners. Students are unlikely to walk out of every day of a PBL class wowed at what they learned. But they are more likely to look back at the overall experience and be amazed at the type of learners they have become - and realize that there was someone guiding and encouraging that entire process.