History and Project-Based Learning

I am committed to the concept of project-based learning as a teaching tool in history.  Projects can be small, confined to a single class period or two, or lengthy endeavors, that gobble up a couple of weeks or one class a week for an extended period.  In community college, my testing assignments were take-home mini-projects that students had to complete individually in two weeks time.  The main idea, here, is to get students learning by doing, not just reading, listening, or memorizing.  (Most memorizing does not actually lead to memorization, but that’s another post for another time.)

To introduce the general concept, I am borrowing two of Edutopia’s videos for a basic introduction:

I have covered many such projects (see posts in my Experiencing History – Project Based Learning category).  The general idea is to get students learning about historical content and historical method.  Thus, projects create two kinds of experiences:

  1. Experiences that help students better comprehend a foreign time and place, resulting in skills-building in problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking, and presentation.
  2. Experiences that help students better comprehend how a historian operates, resulting in skills-building in problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking, and presentation plus the skills a historian uses, such as critical reading, writing, argumentation, research, and peer review.

Projects of varying size and time commitment can be manufactured to create either type of experiential learning or both.  This is a much more effective way to build skills and create long-term retention of materials.  Entire units or elements of units can be taught in this way or projects can replace standard testing with application of learned materials. This provides students with more tools in the learning process, as well as more mechanisms for retention.

K-12 education may seem to offer more project types, and this is true to an extent, but there are many opportunities for academic level projects that should not be overlooked.  Some of these may be best achieved through collaborative electives, such as fiction-writing, documentary-making, historical archaeology, music programs, or oral history projects (that can be recorded), but department colloquia or conferences, journals, and peer review programs introduce projects that nicely emulate the actual responsibilities of professional academic historians.

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