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Project-Based Learning: A Christian Pedagogy?

When she saw from my nametag that I was at the conference representing the PBL Residency, she said, “It’s so important that we provide more hands-on learning for some students.”

Perhaps, but Project-Based Learning is not “hands-on learning,” at least not essentially.

For the last 150 years or so, education was mostly about educating the head. This is a limited approach because a human being is so much more than a brain. There has been a move to educate head and hands, but the Biblical idea of “heart, soul, mind and strength” suggest this too is reductive.

Besides it being so effective, one of the things I love about Project-Based Learning is that it is much more consistent with a Biblical view of the student and the purpose of education than the way I used to teach was.

All approaches to education are rooted in a view of what a human being is—an anthropology; all approaches to education also have a purpose. From these flow our curriculum and our pedagogies.

The educational approach that has been with us for the last 150 years is built on the idea that the human is primarily a rational being. We built an educational system that designed to bestow knowledge and develop human reason: we extracted children from the home, which are characterized by ignorance and irrationality, and placed them with an expert who has knowledge and a trained mind. The teacher then dispenses knowledge and exercises the reason of his charges, usually by lecture, which is the most efficient way to dispense knowledge. A little over a century ago, industry found this educational system very useful for serving the new industrial economy. It was able to efficiently sort students into categories of labourers, those with lower test scores, and managers, those with higher scores. What walked out of schools was a workforce that could read, write and calculate, and an elite minority who would go on to university.

Although we have been questioning this approach to education for about 50 years now, we still see a lot of the vestiges of this model in our classrooms.

  1. Teachers standing in the front of a classroom.

  2. Students sitting in rows facing forward.

  3. Students sitting passively taking notes.

  4. Students writing compositions only teachers will read.

  5. Students taking lesson quizzes, unit tests and course exams.

  6. Text books.

These things are fine and good if we believe:

  1. The most important human quality is reason.

  2. Education exists primarily to serve an industrial economy.

  3. The greatest problem humans face is a lack of knowledge and information.

These things are no longer true, and the first never was.

So what do we replace it with? I would argue that Christian schools will look to a Biblical anthropology and purpose in which to root our teaching practices. What does the Bible say about what a human being is?

  1. Humans are creatures of a holy and loving God (Genesis 1 and 2).

  2. Human beings are rebellious (Genesis 3).

  3. Humans, both male and female, are incredibly valuable because they have been made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27).

  4. A human being is rational, but also emotional, spiritual and physical.

  5. Every human being is equipped by God with unique gifts (Romans 12:4-8) to use in the service of others.

The purpose of education is to develop these gifts, not merely to equip students to go on to post-secondary education. Nor is it our goal to create citizens that have the skills necessary to contribute to the democratic process and the provincial and national economies. Nor is it our purpose to produce students who perform well on standardized tests. The purpose of education in Christian schools is ultimately linked to aligning our lives to God’s purposes in the world.

If this anthropology and purpose are accurate, then our approach to education will

  1. see the inherent value of all learners.

  2. discover and develop the gifts of all learners.

  3. contribute to the growth of not just all learners, but all of the learner.

  4. provide opportunities for students to contribute to the flourishing of the world and other people.

PBL is a pedagogical approach that is consistent with the Biblical anthropology and purpose:

  1. PBL utilizes, and therefore values, individual student’s gifts.

  2. PBL is holistic, educating the heart, soul, mind and strength.

  3. PBL is about collaboration and sharing one’s gifts with others.

  4. PBL looks for ways of meaningfully connecting with and serving the larger community—it’s very deliberate about “loving your neighbour.”

  5. PBL better equips students to transform the world for God’s glory, because it involves students in “real life” today — “not just to prepare them for ‘real life.’”

Project-Based Learning is very effective. I believe that the fundamental reason for its effectiveness is that, in the hands of Christian teachers, it is built upon a Biblical anthropology and purpose for education.

This is one of four CACE blog posts on Project-Based Learning. Stay tuned for the following blogs posts in this series:

This article was originally published on the CACE Blog on March 20, 2017.


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