Project Based Learning

by David · 10 comments

I remember when I first discovered project based learning, at the time I was on a break from insitutional education. I was a little lost and didn’t know what I wanted to do with life. I stopped going to film school and decided I was going to somehow figure things out by taking a break to focus on finding an answer.

I didn’t have a plan, but I did have the belief that I could do anything. I strongly felt that I didn’t need people nor an institution to tell me what I needed to do with life. I was more than capable – or so I thought. It wasn’t until the academic year begun that I started to feel a little nervous. Most of my friends were returning to education, was I making the right decision? Was I being brave, or stupid? Possibly both? It didn’t help that 99.9% of the people I knew were encouraging me to go back to film school and no one seemed to understand why I didn’t want to, but I still kept my head on my shoulders and I stuck to my decision.

The mission to find myself had begun and I was on my own. I didn’t have a job and I only had enough money in my bank account to last me a few months. What was I going to do? After wasting a week or two on the internet I decided to go to my local library to get some books. I was going to educate myself on the things I had always wanted to know more about. I was going to teach myself a bunch of ‘stuff’  Where this would lead I had no idea, but it seemed like a good place to start.

I knew that I was interested in business so I took out some books on accounting. I’m not quite sure why I did that, but It made sense at the time. I also took out some sociology books because I wanted to understand society better. I never got very far with those books because I found them to be extremely boring. I would open up the book on accounting and fall asleep within minutes. I just could’t stay awake, so I started to question if I was actually interested in business. Was I kidding myself? I went back and forth to the library, but nothing I found was interesting enough to keep me awake. Nothing got me excited. Perhaps film was the only thing that interested me? It’s all I knew. I did like to talk about a wide range of different subjects, but studying from books just wasn’t working for me.

I did rerun to the library, but now I was taking out books about film, books about storytelling, editing and whatever else I could get my hands on. This didn’t make much sense. I had left film school and here I was taking out books on film. However, It wasn’t quite the same as film school because I could pick the books I wanted to read and I could take as long as I wanted for anything. Maybe I preferred autodidactic learning ? This is was when I was first exposed to the idea that maybe  I learn better alone away from institutions.

Project Based learning

I enjoyed reading from books but there was only so much of this I could do. I knew I wasn’t learning very much. What I needed was something practical, a project perhaps.

The obvious solution was to start some sort of film project for practice, however, for some reason that didn’t seem so appealing; at the time I told myself it was impossible due to finance. Looking back this probably wasn’t true, nevertheless my belief motivated my action so I began to look for alternative solutions.

After another couple of days contemplating, I settled on computer graphics. The sort that you see in movies; It seemed like a perfect fit. The first challenge I set myself was learning to use a piece of software called Maya – it’s huge! Learning what all of the buttons did seemed like a good place to start. This was fun  –  at first, but then it got boring. After weeks of trying to learn the tools I gathered that  I would be forever learning something and that I had better just start to make something, even though I didn’t know what everything did I knew I had to get started.

I decided that for my fist project was going to try to make a car.  I wanted something that looked like this or this, however, mine turned out like this. Although my results were *way* below par, despite all the pain, I learnt an awful lot. I was thrown in the deep end and I had no option but to swim before hitting the bottom. I learned the tools I needed to learn quickly. Project based learning was clearly the answer to my problem.

Why Project Based Learning Works

Project based learning is a successful learning strategy largely due to the fact that it immediately adds context to your learning. I first tried to approach the task of learning computer graphics systematically because I wanted to feel comfortable before I got started. There was no context and I didn’t have a concept of how what I was learning would be useful, although I knew that it would be.

I’ve observed many people approach new learning challenges this way, and it’s just not effective. Learning to use some of the tools is necessary to some degree, however you don’t need complete mastery – It’s not the fun stuff and It’s not the reason you want to learn, therefore spending a lot of time learning how to use tools is counter productive. Tools are learnt when they are used.

I made many mistakes in my project, nevertheless I learnt extremely quickly because understanding how the tools worked was a prerequisite to achieving my goal. I struggled at first, but that didn’t matter because I was having fun, and that’s what I needed to keep going.

There are some things that we have/want to learn that we find difficult because it’s darn right boring. Grammar would fall into this category for most people learning a language,  It’s not until you become a more experienced learner that grammar becomes fun, at least in my experience. Grammar is a tool, and while it is extremely helpful to know some grammar in the beginning, it’s surely not essential. Grammar, like my example above is best learnt through use and application.

I would advice anyone on a mission to learn something new to use projects, not only do they create context, they are also easier to set deadlines for, but more on that later!

Thanks for reading!

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