Jon Cox

Mr. McNair

English 131

12 December 2003

Project-Based Learning: The Unpacking of Education


            It is said that if Rip Van Winkle awoke today he would recognize almost nothing in our society, except schools (Dede). For the most part, the style in which schools are taught remains the same as it was since the inception of public schooling. The classroom usually revolves around the teacher; there are desks, boards, pencils and papers. The board and desks all reinforce the idea that the teacher is the focal point of the classroom. Desks revolve around the teacher to see the board, and the teacher writes on the board. Walker Percy in his essay “The Loss of the Creature,” brings up the idea that much of what students are taught is lost in the packaging of the school setting.

The educator is well aware that something is wrong, that there is a fatal gap between the student’s learning and the student’s life: the student reads the poem, appears to understand it, and gives all the answers. But what does he recall if he should happen to read a Shakespeare sonnet twenty years later? Does he recall the poem or does he recall the smell of the page and the smell of Miss Hawkins? (Percy 608).

He further suggests that this extra packaging provided by the education system does not allow for students to recall the most information they could, and that extra effort is required of them for the “unpacking” of what they have learned. A solution to this problem can be found in project-based learning. Through the completion of projects students leave with less of the packaging of the school setting, and more of what they learned through the project. The unpacking process in education poses a problem for students, and project-based learning offers a solution.

            With packaging, students are being asked to extract what they have learned from all the other experiences that accompanied learning it. This packaging can cause students to not really look forward to learning because of the increased work in unpacking. In the minds of students, there are always distractions that seem much more appealing than unpacking what teachers are trying to say. Students may actually have a desire to learn, but it is the process of taking what the teacher has told you and somehow applying it to your life that makes it difficult to remember and learn anything. There are always those who are motivated to learn, but likewise there are always stronger distractions for students to have to overcome. These distractions can also be caused by the educator though, who injects everything they teach with some of their own style. As Percy points out though, “The educator is only partly to blame. For there is nothing the educator can do to provide for this need of the student. Everything the educator does only succeeds in becoming, for the student, part of the educational package” (Percy 613). Students are expected to learn information from their teachers, but it is through this process of packing and unpacking that they lose some of it. This can be shown as a lost effort by both parties involved, the students and the teacher. Energy is wasted in teaching, and students are not receiving as full of an education as they should be.

            Currently, the education system revolves a large deal around packaging. A teacher would more likely say “Today we are going to study the flow of electricity through metals; then we’ll look at…,” than “Here’s a toaster that isn’t working. Let’s fix it. Or better still, improve it!” (Meyer-Ohle). Students are for the most part learning just the bare facts, and without any sort of basis for these facts, the facts slip away after the students are tested on them. The facts usually are not relevant to student’s everyday lives and thus not remembered as easily. From non-project-based classes I have taken, I find a lot of what I try to remember disappears. I would learn it for the test or paper, but because of the packaging when it was being taught, other distractions would usually take its place. Despite what the current state of education is though, we are slowly moving towards the solution of project-based learning.

I experienced project-based learning first hand my junior and senior year of high school. It came with my involvement in the Communications Academy half-day magnet in the Vancouver School District. In this program I received credit for English, Social Studies and Multimedia Communications, but all three were merged together. Projects were done that encompassed all three of the classes, or at least two on some occasions. Although it was a part of the same school district, the way the class was taught was vastly different from the normal classes in high school. For the most part the students of the program were given an idea, a form of media which to create the project (e.g. web page, video, newsletter, poster, etc…) and then the time to do it. Students were encouraged to find and research what they thought was important, and to analyze and unpackage the information themselves. From completing the various projects I had over the two years it was rare that we would ever be lectured or sat down and “taught.” I didn’t get the packaging of other classes I had taken. What worked was that I was more thoughtful in learning this information based mostly on what I thought I needed to learn in order to do the project well. This usually required a lot of research, and made the project more personal to me. Rather than being told what to do, I was doing what I thought I should do. This control over the project gave me a connection to the material, and allowed me to remember it better over the long term.

            Many others have also experienced the same improvement in education. In 1997 a three-year study was held at two British secondary schools. They had “one that used open-ended projects and one that used more traditional, direct instruction.” What they found was that the two groups of students had “striking differences in understanding and standardized achievement data in mathematics” (GLEF Staff). In this situation the group that used project-based learning had a very different understanding of the subject, in that they had a better recollection of knowledge compared to the other, and an advantage over those who were taught with more direct instruction. Another study researched later on found similar results with project-based learning:

A 1999 study by the Center for Research in Educational Policy at the University of Memphis and University of Tennessee at Knoxville found that students using the Co-nect program, which emphasizes project-based learning and technology, improved test scores in all subject areas over a two-year period on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System. The Co-nect schools outperformed control schools by 26 percent. (GLEF Staff)

These students, compared with the other students in non-project-based schools scored higher on tests. The tests, being comprehensive to the classes, showed overall that students were able to recall more information from doing more project-based types of work than the more traditional forms of teaching. Project-based learning is not a new idea either. A study related to it dates back to 1992 involving 700 students from 11 school districts. They found “that students doing projects using videotaped problems over a three-week period performed better in a number of academic areas later in the school year” (GLEF Staff). These experiences with project-based learning show its advantages, and reasons for schools to take part in it.

            From my experiences and those of others, it is easy to see why project-based learning is a solution to the problem of unpacking information. At its root, project-based learning focuses on how the students want to direct their education, and places less emphasis on the teacher. In project-based learning students “gather information from a variety of sources and synthesize, analyze, and derive knowledge from it. Their learning is inherently valuable because it's connected to something real and involves adult skills such as collaboration and reflection” (Solomon). Students are doing this work on their own and making meaning out of it themselves. In project-based classrooms, “teachers trade in the role of being the director of the class. They give up the role of a “dispenser of knowledge” and “answerer of all questions.” Instead, they serve as mentors, models, and facilitators to the students in their classes” (Diffily). Students are put in the role of the teacher, shedding whatever package the teacher might have given, and instead are able to find what they think is necessary to learn. Students also learn habits that prepare them for the future, and in skills that are attractive to employers.

            Employers want people who can work to get something done and skills for employment that aren’t necessarily being taught to current students. In working on projects, students are expected to be responsible for their project, think about what they are doing, and make good decisions. For students working on a project in a group, they must also be able to control themselves in a group setting. These and other abilities are included in a skill set that employers in the 21st century want, which includes:

·        Personal and social responsibility

·        Planning, critical thinking, reasoning, and creativity

·        Strong communication skills, both for interpersonal and presentation needs

·        Cross-cultural understanding

·        Visualizing and decision-making

·        Knowing how and when to use technology and choosing the most appropriate tool for the task (GLEF Staff)


Employers have found that these skills are important for employees to have, and what they want to promote that students are taught so they can have the best possible employees. These same skills are also taught in a project-based learning setting. As a part of these jobs employees will usually be asked to work with other people as well, and skills such as those do not always come easily when being taught by a teacher. As stated by the authors Rob F. Poell and Ferd J. Van der Krogt, “Whereas, previously, individuals were able to create something on their own (by making choices), nowadays mutual interdependence and interconnectedness have made it necessary for people to go through that process together” (Poell). In group projects, and any other type of project, students are asked to work out problems, and take control of their learning. These are skills that not only employers want, but are almost necessary in order to work well with others.

            Although project-based learning may be beneficial in certain contexts, not every class should be taught in this style. Courses such as science and some math courses, which to a degree feature projects inside of them, are very much linear based. Abstract thinking is usually not encouraged in entry level classes, and the goal is usually just to absorb the rules of the science or mathematics. Project-based learning of math has been shown to work however. As demonstrated earlier with the two British secondary schools in mathematics, the school that used project-based learning was able to outperform the one that did not. In terms of math level though, this was with simpler material and less complex ideas. There is also the idea about project based learning that if students are put in control of their education they won’t do any work. However, when students are put in control they find what interests them and give meaning to what they learn. This idea is at the root of project-based learning, as when “children are interested in what they are doing and able to use their areas of strength, they achieve at a higher level” (GLEF Staff). Students and teachers alike should at least look to partially adapt to this style of learning. Some may discard it at first, but it has been shown to work, and does work in many situations. During the studies that took place over the course of one or several years mentioned throughout this paper, student growth and enhanced achievement was observed. Project-based learning is not a replacement for the traditional classroom, but a type of learning to help fix the packaging presented by schools.

            Project-based learning offers teachers and students alike a chance to further separate themselves from the idea of packaging, and make education more meaningful. Project-based classes offer the advantage of students learning more and allowing them to take control of their education. When put into effect gradually, the growth in learning as a result of project-based learning is sure to be seen by both teachers and students. Percy was wise to know that the education system was flawed, but offers no real tangible answer to the problem. Project-based learning is tangible, is currently in effect in select learning communities, and allows students education to further expand. The goal of education is to learn, and if students are able to learn more using project-based learning than in traditional education, then most logical solution is to least make use of it.

Works Cited

Dede, Chris. Six Challenges for Educational Technology. George Mason University. 11 Nov. 2002 <>.  

Diffily, Deborah. "Project-based learning:  Meeting social studies standards and the needs of gifted learners." Gifted Child Today 25 (2003): 40-43. 12 Nov. 2003 

GLEF Staff. Instructional Module - Project Based Learning. 1 Nov. 2003. The George Lucas Educational Foundation. 12 Nov. 2003 <>.

Meyer-Ohle, Hendrik. Successful Learning - Problem-based Learning (PBL). 2003. Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning (CDTL). 12 Nov. 2003 <>.

Percy, Walker. "The Loss of the Creature." Academic Discourse: Readings for Argument

            and Analysis. Ed. Gail Stygall. Mason, Ohio: Thomson Custom, 2003. 599-613.

Poell, Rob F., and Ferd J. Van der Krogt. "Project-based learning in organizations:  Towards a methodology for learning in groups." Journal of Workplace Learning 15 (2003): 217. 12 Nov. 2003 

Solomon, Gwen. "Project-based learning:  A primer." Technology & Learning 23 (2003): 20-30. 12 Nov. 2003