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by John R. Mergendoller
Senior Fellow

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October 3, 2016
BIE Book Excerpt: The Roots of Gold Standard PBL in Kilpatrick and Dewey

by John R. Mergendoller
Senior Fellow

The following is an excerpt from chapter 2, “What Is Gold Standard PBL?” in Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning, co-published in May 2015 by BIE and ASCD.

In the fall of 1918, William Heard Kilpatrick published an influential essay titled “The Project Method.” Kilpatrick had been one of John Dewey’s students, and his thinking was influenced by Dewey’s philosophy as well as contemporary psychological thought. Kilpatrick’s description of the Project Method caught the attention of educators in the United States for more than a decade and focused attention on the importance of student engagement (what we might today refer to as “flow”) and the “purposeful act” in which students are engaged (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). In Kilpatrick’s thinking, the goal of projects was to foster student motivation by encouraging students to freely decide the “purposes” they wanted to pursue. He believed that unless students were given unfettered voice and choice, schoolwork would only be drudgery, and this would alienate students and be counterproductive to the ultimate educational goal of producing productive citizens.

Although this rather romantic vision of education has resonated among writers from Rousseau to A. S. Neill, it did not resonate with John Dewey. Dewey believed Kilpatrick’s focus on unrestricted student choice was misguided (as do we). Student choice was important, but not absolute. Dewey also questioned Kilpatrick’s emphasis on spontaneous and total student engagement, and he criticized Kilpatrick’s emphasis on “purposeful activity.” Rather than focusing on the significance of activity, Dewey called attention to the “act of thinking,” an iterative process whereby students encounter a conceptual or practical obstacle, plan a solution, try it out, and reflect upon their results (Knoll, 1997). It was the teacher’s job, Dewey believed, to place just such obstacles in front of students. Effective projects were carried out through a “common enterprise” in which “the teacher becomes a partner in the learning process, guiding students to independently discover meaning within the subject area” (Dewey, 1938; Dewey & Small, 1897). Projects with no attention to teacher judgment, guidance, and interaction were likely to fail, or at a minimum, fail to challenge students (Dewey & Small, 1897). Dewey asserted that students still had important things to learn from the teacher, including high standards and a sense of excellence:

The danger that children undertaking too complex projects will simply muddle and mess, and produce not mere crude results (which is a minor matter) but acquire crude standards (which is an important matter) is great. (Dewey, 1916, p. 205)

Those who mistakenly associate Dewey with the “muddle and mess” of laissez-faire education will be surprised to learn that he was very concerned that students develop high standards for their work through rigorous critique and guidance. Although Kilpatrick gained fame as the popularizer of the Project Method, his ideas eventually fell into disfavor, and he even began to question them himself (Knoll, 1997). For the development of Gold Standard Project Based Learning, it is Dewey’s criticisms of Kilpatrick, and his own attention to “the cognitive act,” that are foundational. Dewey felt that it was important to engage students in purposeful project activities and to grant some degree of student voice and choice, but student engagement and decision making were neither absolute nor sufficient for learning. Teachers were indispensible, for they created the context in which student learning took place. Teachers conceived situations where students engaged in thinking, sustained inquiry, and reflection. Using today’s language, the teacher’s job was to design and plan projects, making sure they lead students to grapple with things worth knowing (generally defined by accepted standards), scaffold learning and materials so that students succeed, assess student progress, and engage and coach students toward learning goals, and finally, manage the project process, turning over as much responsibility to students as is productive, given the goals of the project and students’ readiness to assume responsibility for their own learning. We summarize these practices as project based teaching.

Beyond drawing on Dewey’s ideas to inform Gold Standard PBL, we would argue that Dewey’s concern with the “act of thinking” also moves project based learning beyond a purely vocational focus to encompass philosophical (unanswerable) questions--questions such as What is beauty? What is ethical? What is the purpose of education? Although Dewey would consider the more concrete problems of architectural design as worthwhile problems to be solved through experimentation, thought, and reflection, as a philosopher he would also advocate that students wrestle with more abstract questions of life and ethics.

Although the paternity of project based learning doesn’t trace directly back to Dewey, his thinking has had considerable influence on all those who teach using PBL and has strongly influenced our own conceptualization of Gold Standard Project Based Learning. He drew our attention to the importance of the teacher as an indispensable mentor and senior partner in PBL design, planning, management, coaching, assessment, and reflection. He demonstrated that abstract questions, in addition to design challenges, could be approached through an iterative method of thought and reflection. Finally, he emphasized that engagement alone was an insufficient justification for PBL, and learning in general.

Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning is a part of BIE's fall book sale. Buy the book at and get one of BIE’s PBL Toolkit series books at half price.


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