“What’s the use of it?” (PBL in graduate education)

Is project-based learning (PBL) in graduate education useful? asked a very productive and engaged researcher and teacher. Some responses and further questions:

1. PBL allows some students to identify paths that they want to follow, in contrast to doing what they think they should be doing (or think that other people think they should be doing). In this sense PBL is a form of “refractive practice” (http://wp.me/p1gwfa-sr), in which we stop and take stock (through reflection, dialogue, and other processes), and thereby

“prepar[e] for any step before proceeding either:

  • from one phase to another,
  • on from an activity or event,
  • into dialogue with others, or
  • at a branch point, when choosing an activity or path to pursue.”


Recurrent episodes or even creative habits of refractive practice provide opportunities to “not simply continue along previous lines.” PBL is useful to the extent that continuing along previous lines keeps us on paths that, in the end, we are not happy with, or that we would have preferred to have diverged from.

2. PBL courses are a form of “CPR space,” where CPR stands for connecting, probing, and reflecting, which “while keeping in view the realms of critical academic work and participation in social movements, is separate from them” (http://wp.me/p1gwfa-uB). This is useful for the same reasons as in #1.

3. The tools and processes used in refractive practice and creating CPR spaces provide models for adoption and adaption into other areas of work and life.

4. The experience of participation and collaboration in PBL courses “buoys participants’ enthusiasm, hope, resolve, and courage for creating change and making transitions in situations that may–at least at first–feel far from the spirit of the [course]” (http://wp.me/p1gwfa-uB).

5. This last claim–or hope–warrants scrutiny. From http://wp.me/p1gwfa-tz:

A few years ago an experienced facilitator admonished me not to think too much about how to support the translation into everyday work and life of tools and processes introduced in a workshop setting. The advice was to the effect that tools and processes are taken up only if they are introduced in actual work settings.

In contrast to dominant theories of innovation and diffusion of innovations,

the default situation [becomes] one in which people are entangled, but open to change through new encounters. Efforts to innovate outside those contexts can be seen as stepping away from entanglements. What do people (such as myself) lose by positioning themselves in that way?

(Contrasting diagrams: conventional, entangled)


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