We may say that the child does not learn by being told through passive listening, nor by being expected to remember definitions, or by remembering things that may be useful in future. Herein is the key to understanding the difference between the project approach and ‘traditional’ teaching. One of the fundamental ideas behind project-orientation is to utilize this insight in learning which says that (for example) we should not try to teach statistics to pupils and students in a way that is similar to the methods of catalogue-oriented teacher who places the child/student in a passive monotonous learning process that paces along with 10 new words each day. Instead, students should find themselves in situations where they feel that they need to learn statistics because this is a tool to be used to help master these situations. As we all know, statistics is not learned on a single occasion. Therefore, we should place the student in a series of ’multiple confrontations’, with many challenges where statistics is needed and therefore learned through the process.11
An example. The education of social workers.
In the education of social workers, there is always an element in the curriculum, saying that the students have to learn ‘interviewing‘ as it is an important tool. No social worker can neglect this. Therefore; one can say that all the students have to be taught how to conduct an interview, and how to use the result. This may be done in a scheduled lecture, aided by textbooks and demonstrations. The hope is that the students will learn from this. And of course they do! On the other hand, the project way of doing it is to make a project organised curriculum. Here, the students (in cooperation with their teacher) enter into a project. Let us call it ‘The life situation of Madeleine Hansen’. She is so to say ‘the context’. The student may (with her permission and cooperation) gather information about Madeleine Hansen. They have to filter off the relevant information from the irrelevant and contextualise the relevant information within the central aspects of ‘social work for Madeleine Hansen’. This is exactly what a social worker is expected to do - something they do not automatically master and therefore have to learn in an effective way.
One day the students come to the teacher, saying that they would like to conduct a more formal interview with Madeleine Hansen. The teacher says OK, adding that this should give them the basic elements of ‘interviews as a tool for social workers’. Then they (teacher and students together) may use whatever means they have at their disposal in order to learn what they have to learn: Lecture in person, video-taped (or DVD) lecture, simulation, role-playing, textbook etc.
Nobody should expect the students to learn the topic ‘interviews as a tool for social workers’, from this single significant confrontation, including both the theoretical, practical and personal competence, but rather that the learning process is going on from this one ‘situation’ to other subsequent situations or ‘contexts’.
Another example. Prostitution.
There have been projects on the theme ‘prostitution’. Prostitution is a serious problem in the world. We need to understand it in order to do something about it.
This understanding must reach far deeper than moral judgement, and the task of projects is to let the students get the possibility of developing this deeper understanding. There have been students in theology who have taken as their point of departure on prostitution as a moral issue, but soon discovered that they needed other approaches (disciplines).
One of the necessary disciplines for understanding prostitution is economics. Without an insight in economics, it is impossible to understand prostitution, and therefore also impossible to take the necessary steps to fight against it on all levels, from the individual to the global.
Students are sometimes victims of what I call ‘cheap project orientation’. Here the projects aim at ‘visiting the outside world’ by leaving the school for some hours. In this ‘outside world’ they take photos, use video cameras, conduct ‘interviews’ and gather written material. Back in school, they ‘write a project’. This means that they write a report, and/or present an exhibition with video etc. The teachers find this ‘interesting’ and praise the project and the participants. Everybody is happy until the educationalist comes along, telling them that they have wasted their own time and the time of their ‘victims’, some being prostitutes. The educationalist tells them that what they have been doing is bad journalism, and that a trained reporter could have done better. If they present their report to the educationalist and say that they have collected ‘knowledge’ in it, the educationalist has the obligation to disappoint them, by saying that knowledge is something inside a person, and that it consists of far more than collected facts or videos.
In educational science, we do not recognise such methods as ‘learning through fact finding’. Learning science in order to understand and to improve the world is more or less to leave the green trees in the forest and to conquer the grey theories ‘under’ the surface of the visible world.
A student should never be permitted to use projects to describe phenomena in the world, even if he or she would like to do so. We (and our students) need scientific understanding. If the ‘essentials’ of phenomena could be seen by direct observation of the world, we would not need science. Since it is not so, we need training and education. In short, we need schools and higher education. We need ‘significant persons’ (teachers) to teach us these (sometimes) grey theories.
Therefore, the student who insists on staying at the descriptive surface level of observed prostitution will never understand the essentials of it and therefore cannot propose anything to solve the problem. It is a challenge for project pedagogics to guide the student to an understanding of this and insisting for competence in economics (as an example) in order to get a deeper understanding of the problem. The task of the ‘project-teacher’ is to grasp the ‘situation’ and give the student the tools needed to learn the relevant economics or other subjects needed for a proper understanding of prostitution in the society. These tools can be presented through teaching in the old way, the one after the other, without the ‘contextualisation’, which is essential for the project way of learning.
If ‘prostitution’ is a theme in the project organised process of learning social work, the same student as in the last example may learn ‘interviewing’ as part of this project. This is exactly what is meant by the tool ‘multiple confrontations’ by which the child learns what an apple is.
The concept of a ‘project organised curriculum’ covers the task of planning a sequence of different projects that lead through the necessary multiple confrontations where the content of the education can be learned.
A few words on words.
In literature, there is and has always been much confusion about the words or concepts ’problem’ and ’project’. In addition to this, other expressions are also in use. To give some examples, one may think of ’theme’ and ’theme-organised’ curricula, ’Vorhaben’ and ’case’ studies. Sometimes these expressions are discussed as if they are so different that they cannot be treated as dimensions of some basic common idea. This would have been acceptable if the followers of these presumable different pedagogical approaches had made it clear what they go for and how they differ from other approaches.
Some educationalists use this chaos to distil their own ideas, claiming these to be universal rules that have to be followed. As an example, one may think of the claim that all projects must be problem-based, where this claim is not followed by a valid definition of what should be understood by the word ’problem’. They do not consider the possibility that whatever is meant by a ’problem’, it clearly has a different meaning in different subjects. If a student wants to make a project in mathematics and proposes that this should take its point of departure in a mathematical problem, the teacher must expect the student to solve the problem, learning mathematics during the process. If a student in economics should propose to learn economics in a project formulated as the problem foreign aid may add to production in a country, nobody would ever think of the possibility that the student should learn economics by solving the problem.
Is project organised learning a method?
Words may be useful, or dangerous, leading us in false directions. As an example, one may take a closer look at the expression ‘the project method’, as famous representatives of the project way of thinking use it in literature.
The problem with this expression is that it leads people to false conclusions. This may be illustrated by a dialog, say between Miss Q and Mr P.
Miss Q: You speak about projects as a method. Is that so?
Mr. PT: Yes, it is a specific method.
Miss Q: Is it common to consider projects as a method for learning?
Mr. PT: Some of the ’prophets’ for this method use that expression. Kilpatrick spoke repeatedly of ’the project method’.
Miss Q: Well, let us see what a ’method’ is. Are there other methods for learning?
Mr PT: Definitively! We have the traditional method.
Miss Q: Are there still other methods?
Mr PT: No, basically there are only these two methods.
Miss Q: You say that learning in a project means to use one single method.
Mr. PT: So it is.
Miss Q: Reading textbooks, is that a method.
Mr. PT: No that is part of the traditional method.
Miss Q: So, you think that pupils and students who learn in a project can and should not read textbooks?
Mr. PT. In the pure world it would be so. Pupils and students should learn from projects in reality and not from what they read in books.
Miss Q. Do you really believe that pupils and students can go out in the forest and learn botanic just by looking at trees? Does it not belong to our basic knowledge that the essence of things does not show itself in their appearance?
One may think that this is a totally constructed dialogue, with no connection to real discussions. It is not.
If we consider projects as a specific method, we throw away all other methods, including all teaching, since teaching is done through lectures, counselling, reading of books and so on. This is nonsense.
Projects must be seen as a strategy for learning that not only allows, but needs teaching, lecturing, reading, computer programs et cetera in order to enhance the learning process and outcome. Therefore, projects should never be called a method. It should be called ‘a strategy for learning’. The important thing is that all the methods for teaching and learning that we know, are organised in a way that fundamentally differs from the traditional way of doing this.
In traditional pedagogics, we tell the pupils and students that they have to learn what we have decided. After they have learned, for example after they have finished their education, we expect them:
to remember what we have taught them;
to select what content (either fact or method) is relevant for solving the task:
to ask for and to find content (facts and methods) that they have not learned in their education;
to apply this content in a proper way, and
to evaluate if they worked with the task in a rational way, including cooperation with other people.
We know the result of this strategy. In short, the students get a practise shock (Praxis-Schock) when they leave school and enter the real world.
The project-organised curriculum may in principle have the same content as the traditional, but the elements are combined in a very different way. In the project way of learning we expect that:
the students learn more and better if they feel a need, either for facts or methods:
the function of the projects is that, in order to proceed in the project, they shall discover these needs and accordingly learn, or when necessary ask for teaching in the form of lectures, texts, computer program et cetera;
the application of facts or methods is an important part of the project, that is the learning process;
they will discover whether they have found the correct or feasible facts or methods or not;
they will understand how the learning process may be accelerated and improved through cooperation with other individuals.
This is of course an extremely condensed description of the essential difference between traditional pedagogics and project orientation. It does not aim at describing any ‘project didactics’.
The important thing for the EuroFaculty Project is that the issue of project orientation must be considered to represent the key to all the other issues and objectives that are indicated, such as the question of:
computer aided teaching and learning
library and the librarians
relation between student qualifications and needs in society
relation and cooperation between university and region/society in research
how to improve learning in groups
the transformation from learning of facts to the learning of methods
the need for students to learn how to analyse and argue in a scientific way
et cetera …
Here, it is necessary to say that these challenges are not solved, and that international cooperation is needed in order to establish a didactical good fundament for project organised learning. Even if Russian contributions are important for this work, it is necessary to say that there are special problems to be overcome in Russia. These problems have their roots in the history of problem orientation.
Is motivation the central issue of project orientation?
It is important to stress that this way of thinking has very little to do with motivation. The child does not learn what an apple is, primarily because she is interested in learning this, but because ‘apple’ is a part of daily situations and therefore a part of her or his world. Of course motivation is important, but it would be completely wrong and lead us in a false direction if we seek to argue that project orientation is good because children and students become more motivated. Since they have to learn a lot of things that are outside the range of their primary motivation, we should avoid the temptation of saying that motivation is one of the central reasons for project orientation. Findings from the evaluation of Roskilde University Centre give support to this assumption.
I am talking about projects as strategy for learning. This is something very different from a traditional curriculum, where this may be concluded with a project where the students use what they have tried to learn in a traditional way.
This is, in short, the first point of departure for understanding and developing a useful approach to project orientation in our educational system. In this aspect, project orientation has nothing to with such wild ideas that children, pupils and students should learn from ’practise’ in a society without schools, textbooks, teachers, professors, teaching, lecturing and so on. There is no chance that a child who leaves the school system and sets off into the surrounding landscape would ever learn botany, geology, zoology or astronomy through multiple confrontations with green leaves, stones or lakes. Insight into the wonder of the stars above us or the morality inside us will never develop in a child who is left alone. The wisdom of the world has to be brought to the child, the pupil and the student, and we know only one useful instrument for this: the school, or ’the educational system’. The best we can hope for, and often achieve is that the child or the student does not sit and wait for us to bring what he or she needs, but meet us by asking for facts, methods or theories that are needed in order to cope with the different situations. This strategy where student and teacher meet is essential for project organised learning. It is very different from the traditional pedagogics where the student is told to learn because the teacher or the study plan says so.
The task is not to abandon the school system with all its tools, but to make it better. It is of utmost importance to stress this point. If we look at literature describing project orientation there is so much nonsense written where this is neglected. One mistake is to talk about ’the project method’, and to present it as something different from other teaching and learning methods. One may find texts or people describing and talking about the project method as something different from reading books or giving lectures, thereby indicating that in projects one does not read books or give lectures. This is, as indicated, pure nonsense and has no pedagogical support. Such views should not be permitted in serious discussions on how to improve our educational system, and is blocking a deeper understanding of the real differences between a traditional pedagogical approach and a more ’modern’ way of thinking.
Here, project orientation does not and cannot aim at throwing all ’traditional’ research and practice overboard. Project orientation is not a teaching or learning method. It is a way of understanding and organising the learning process, which includes all the menus that constitute established methods.
If we let ourselves be inspired by this way of thinking in our design of a new and a better educational system, we may decide to construct curricula that are ’project-organised’ (A school or a curriculum cannot be project-oriented. It can be project-organised.). Here, the important thing is to ’place’ the pupils or students in learning situations where they, through their own activities, acquire knowledge and competence that is useful for themselves and society, both national and global. These ’situations’ can be called ’themes’, ’tasks’, ’problem-solution-processes’ or ’processes’ or have other denominations. We may, here and for simplicity use the term ’context’ for all these terms. If, as a part of this context (that of course is a process running over shorter or longer duration), the students run into a problem, they should discover this and ask for tools that may help them solve the problem. If this tool is a statistical method, they should ideally themselves discover that they need competence in using this method, and henceforth ask for it. If the teacher is not too far away and accessible they may contact him or her and say: ’We need this or that competence’. The teacher may say: ’OK, I’ll give you a short lecture, and then you go to the library and find a book or an article that relates to it. Discuss and start the learning of the method. Then use the department for computer aided learning. They have some good software on this topic that can be useful. In two days I’ll come by and question you in order to find out if you have learned to use the relevant method and fully understand its application and limitations.’
Here I say that the ’context’ (or the project approach) makes use of lectures, books, group discussions, computer aided learning and examinations. The important thing is that these pedagogical tools (methods) are organised in a way that is fundamentally different from how it is done in the traditional way where the learning process is not build up around ‘contextual centres of gravity’ for the benefit of the students cognitive development. In the traditional way, we just tell the students to come and listen to us when we lecture on a specific method without any connection to the actual situation (context) of our students. We do this in the hope that they listen, understand, remember and use what we tell them in a future where the content of our lecture (hopefully) becomes relevant and (our former) students recognise this.
It is an inspiring but not an easy task to improve our educational system by means of project orientation. The easy way out of the difficulties involved would, of course, be to continue the traditional way of thinking and planning. There is also an alternative cheaper project solution. This consists of the following strategy: Place the students in groups. Let them find a ’problem’ and write a report. This ’solution’ is so widespread that we may hear people use the expression ’to write a project’. Here, the focus is not upon learning, but upon writing, and the aim is to write a project-report with a high academic standard. The problem is, as we all know, that students unfortunately do not always know what they write. The other aspect is that if we collect information on a theme and a problem and write this into a report, this is no guarantee for learning. Today, with the Internet, we cannot and should not think that there is something that deserves the label ’learning by fact finding’. We know that the task of higher education in, for example, social sciences is not to get the students to learn facts about society, but to discover new facts, structures and tendencies in and about the future society where the use of old facts is dangerous.
What do we learn, and what should we learn?
This brings me to another important aspect of project orientation, namely the shift towards the priority of understanding and mastery of scientific methods at the cost of remembering facts. This is, of course, not a specific task for project orientation. Let us look at Germany after the Second World War. Here educationalists tried to reform the educational system and its approach to the question of how one learns by focusing upon a deeper understanding of the different subjects by means of ’exemplarity learning’. (The Tübinger Resolution). The idea behind this was that pupils and students should dig deeper into fewer subject examples instead of the current ’surface learning’ by focusing upon almost everything. In physics, said Martin Wagenschein, the important thing is to learn the scientific method and thinking in physics, and that this is lost if we seek to bring ’all physics’ into the curriculum. A similar, but different way of reasoning was found in medical education. Here, it was felt that the overwhelming and increasing mass of ’facts’ made the students lose the professional understanding necessary to become good doctors.
The important aspect of this is that there is no, and cannot be, any general standard strategy to develop methodological understanding as an important learning outcome. This is simply because the different disciplines are based upon so many different scientific methods. To give one example: It is not possible or necessary or advisable to present facts about all rivers in Russia in a geography curriculum. Instead, one should take some rivers and rather than making a catalogue of all rivers invest the time learning more about these selected ones in order to develop the students understanding and knowledge in the discipline ’geography’. On the other hand, if it is permissible to leave some Russian rivers out of the curriculum as a price for obtaining competence in the methods and thinking in geography, this can hardly be recommended as a model for medical education. Therefore the task to enhance method-competence in medical education has to follow other strategies than those valid for geography.
In literature on project orientation it is often stressed that all projects should take their point of departure in a problem. Sometimes there are claims that problem orientation is something different from project orientation. Scientifically this is a very tricky question and in my view it is very difficult to give a clear answer. One needs a deeper understanding of words and concepts.
A problem means ’something that is presented or cast forward’ (pro-blemma). In a Greek-Socratic tradition the strategy was to find truth through reasoning. One person made a statement by claiming something. This claim was then taken up and led to different points of view through discussion and analysis. We could call this problem-based.
On the other hand there was a development in the direction of learning through producing something, making a product. In Italy, where this took place, they used the Latin expression ’to cast forward’ (Pro – forward. Jacere – to throw. Pro-jacere. To cast forward. A known example is ‘projectile’).
In this perspective, if it is valid, problem-organised learning could describe a learning process that takes place as a result of dealing with an academic or theoretical problem. A project-organised learning could accordingly be understood as a learning process stemming from the production of something ’real’, a product. (This was the meaning of the term used, for example, in Italian architecture).
These considerations are of fundamental importance for the development of a scientific theory on project orientation.
If we accept that there seems to be no reason to permit the one solution (problem based learning) and reject the other way (project based learning) or vice versa, we may say that both approaches seem reasonable. They both give the possibility to construct curricula based upon the central consideration of contextual learning. Both a ’problem’ and a ’production of a product or a proposal’ are good contexts for organising learning. The difference seems to be that problem-based learning has a taste of academic theory whereas project organised learning aims more at the needs of society. This may be interpreted as a difference between ’pure’ and ’applied’ science, and I am in favour of both.
I know perfectly well that we need to produce qualifications that are needed in society. If not, it is very unlikely that society would be willing to pay us for running the educational system. The students will not come to us if we do not give them the relevant qualifications to find work in society. At the same time, we know that in the long run, we are not able to keep the highest standards in education if we do not develop ’pure science’, that is, scientific research stemming not from society, but from theoretical curiosity. We may illustrate this by pointing out that society would never pay for medical education and research if the medical people did not find a balance between the pure and applied aspects, both in teaching and in research.
In the same way, I think it is important to permit and to find a balance between both aspects: problem based and project based learning. Where this balance is to be found, and how we administer it depends upon the subject. If for example you study the problem of violence, you should not too easily be permitted to do so if at the same time you neglect the violence actually taking place in our world and our society. On the other hand, I cannot tell my daughter in law that she has to organise her learning so that there is an outcome relevant for society. She studies the creation of amino acid precursors as a result of radiation influx upon interstellar ions at a specific place in universe. No proposals relevant for our society are expected from her research.
How to develop a project organised curriculum?
The underlying consideration behind this way of thinking is that there is no standard model for project-organised education. As an educationalist I am not able to present or sell a fully developed scheme for implementing project-organized or problem based learning. Even if I had such a model, it would not be advisable to present it. There are several reasons for this. One is found in the experience that a university, a school or an institute has to fight for its own educational ’culture’. If a new way of educational thinking is being pressed down on the heads of the participants as a reform from above (Reform von Oben), they can sabotage it. Therefore, it is highly recommended that all attempts to improve the educational way of thinking should be made on the basis of inspiring the participants, staff and students to build something they believe in and are willing to work for. Keynes was thinking along this line when he said that if you want to influence people, you should be a little mystical in your presentation.
On the other hand, it would be irresponsible to change a pedagogical tradition without giving the people involved maximum support, not so much in rules and regulation of details, but in ’structured inspiration’. What I mean with this can be described in stressing one important difference between the traditional way of teaching and learning and project orientation. In a traditional curriculum, pupils and students are more or less considered to be identical. As already described we must consider that in a classroom or in an auditorium the teacher delivers a text or a spoken message, we should not think that all the pupils and students being present receive the same message. We should also be careful in believing that they all go through the same curriculum. We should expect that the strategies the students use to come through our curriculum do not consist in a common adaptation to the official curriculum. Of course there are collective elements among the students in their strategies to come through the curriculum, but the important thing is that there are important individual strategies. These strategies, both the collective and the individual, are mostly undiscovered by the teachers. With the change from traditional learning towards project-organised learning, there is a dramatic change in this. During the first years of Roskilde University Centre I conducted many interviews with both teachers and students. Many teachers said that the most remarkable experience and aspect of project-organised learning was the discovery that the students now were individuals, and therefore much more interesting and inspiring than they had felt at the ’old’ universities.
It is of course impossible to cover more than a few, or more correct, to mention more than a few aspects of project orientation in a short presentation. But it deserves highlighting that this individual focus is, so to say, built into the project way of thinking itself. Student or pupil centred teaching and learning in the tradition of Dewey does not only mean that the students and the pupils are the centre of focus as a group. They are there as individuals. This is being treated later in this report. The traditional way of educational thinking, and much of the research that has been used to build up an understanding of how pupils and students learn, is based on the premise that they are not treated so much as individuals but rather as members of a class. This knowledge and this understanding have resulted in the traditional pedagogics, and as the Polish educationalist Szaniawski says: project orientation makes traditional pedagogics break down. It represents ’didactical nihilism’. To some extent he is right, but the counter-argument is that we can under no circumstances leave the promises of project orientation in order to keep traditional pedagogics alive! Instead, we have to face the task to develop project-pedagogics.
Didactical nihilism or pedagogics for project organised learning?
The point of departure for this reformulation of pedagogics is not to throw all the traditional pedagogics away, but to give maximum assistance to everyone who is involved in implementing these new educational thinking and development processes. First of all it is of crucial importance to use already obtained experience and do this in a way that confronts teachers and students with didactical reflections that hold some value. Propaganda and slogans might have been necessary and useful, both for the ’progressivists’ in the USA and for the evangelists during the seventies in Europe, but it is now necessary to cut away that which can not be defended in all the overwhelming literature on project orientation. There are too many cases where writers present rules for projects, claiming that they are conditio sine qua non.
Rules or pedagogical insight?
As mentioned earlier many writers declare that all projects must focus upon problems in society. In German, this is expressed as a criterion of ’Praxisbezug’, meaning that theoretical practise is not as good as real problems. In Norway projects were introduced in the school system telling the teachers and pupils that all projects should be relevant for society (’samfunnsrelatering’).
In the modern world, where ’the next economy’ or the transition from ’mass-economy’ to ’information economy’ is of vital importance in the global competition, it would be insane to protest against the demand for societal relevance of projects. This is not the problem. The problem is that this is postulated as a rule and that the performers (teachers, students and administrators) are told to do this and expected to do this. As a result, this demand from above is not presented in a convincing way. Without this conviction we cannot expect the participants to fulfil their task in a proper way. Instead, we have to indicate the reasons why it is best both for the students, the teachers and society to seek projects that take society into consideration as far as possible. This last expression indicates that we should also be open to permitting and promoting projects of theoretical character.
If we want to build up a new pedagogics for project organised learning, we have to be sceptical of all rules that are not justified in empirical research or through theoretically convincing reasoning. One example is the widespread demand for all projects to be carried out in groups. This is considered to be so evident that it is accepted without question. Many educationalists present this rule and do not consider it necessary to indicate any reasons why it must be so. In fact, it is not so. There are many examples where individual projects are permitted, without any signs of catastrophe, as far as the issue of learning is concerned.
Here, the problem and the ’solution’ is the same. We should never present anything in pedagogics as a rule if instead we can give reasons for doing it. Rules are prone to sabotage. Reasons are not.
If we see the importance of student activity for learning we should give reasons and seek to convince the participants. Then we could and should give both teachers and students some sort of ’user manual’, indicating why and how they can enhance learning through group work. This ’user manual’ should present themes like ’Vygotskij for project groups’, ’why it is necessary to take care of individual learning in groups’ or ’why group discussions do not need to be the most important part of learning in groups’.
Again, we should present the combination of group pedagogics and project pedagogics as a menu.
Doing it in this way we can demonstrate that project organisation does not mean pupils or students leaving their schools or academic institutions, running into the surrounding forests and lakes or city centres and there carrying out projects because they are so motivating and because there is no stress upon learning.
CooPEERative learning. Learning in groups. The transition from ’passive learning’ to ’active learning’ may take many forms. We may think of passive reading compared to active reading, or the difference between just being present in an auditorium and being an active listener, or taking active part in discussions in seminars.
Active reading is not the same as to read with your eyes wide-open. It consists more in trying to grasp the message in the text, to bring the content from the text into your own consciousness by means of the special meaning of activity laid down in Vygotskij's thinking. Reading a book is just you and the writer. He or she may have died a thousand years ago, or be still alive, but it is up to you to make the text come alive. The active partnership in an achroamatic lecture includes you and the lecturer; all the other students are irrelevant. If they signal a lack of attention or that the lecture is boring, it is up to you to make the lecturer speak – to you.
It is important to take into consideration that the objectives of the EUROFACULTY Project state that there is an intention of pursuing active learning, but not stating explicitly how this should be understood and fulfilled.
One interpretation is that the intention is, inter alia, to bring more group organised learning into the pedagogical everyday life of the students. If this is correct, it may be wise to take a closer look at the issue.
'Learning in group' is not the same as saying that 'groups can learn'.
I have already used two expressions that might sound the same, but they are not and their difference is extremely important. Learning in groups should not be confused with group learning. Let us illustrate this by the help of a simple example.
For the sake of simplicity, let us consider the smallest conceivable group consisting of only two students. Let us call these students Igor and Yvonne. First, we ask Igor alone. ’What is the capital of ....’. We may find that he is able to give 50% correct answers to the question about capitals of European countries. We then give him a test result that we call ’50%’. Then we let Yvonne go through the test, she also get ’50%’. She is (as measured by the test) just as competent as Igor. Then we do a similar test with the two students together. We ask the group ’what is the capital of ....’. If ‘the group’ has the competence, the correct answer is given. We may get a result that the group has the competence ’70%’. There seems to be a positive group effect. In fact there is, but the problem is that neither Igor nor Yvonne necessarily performs any better in the group than they did as individuals.
The experiment can be repeated with two other students, but the next test shows that there is no group effect. The next group, consisting of two ’50%’ performs no better then the two students tested alone, reaching a result of ’50%’. To find the solution to this mystery, a third similar experiment is carried out, To the tester’s surprise, the third group achieves the admirable result of ’100%’.
The effect is naturally purely statistical. If the two students know the correct answers to the same questions, the group performs no better than the individuals. On the other hand, if the two students have completely different knowledge profiles so that one student knows the answer where the other does not, and vice versa, then the result will be ’100%’.
This statistical effect stems from the decision saying that ’if one student in a group has competence, the whole group gets credit for it’. This decision is clearly no more reasonable than the opposite one, stating that ’if one student in the group lacks competence, the group should get no credit on this point.
If people persist and say that a group can learn, in the sense that it is the group and not the individual group members who have this competence one may ask what happens when an individual leaves the group. If it is the group and not this individual who has the competence, nothing will happen. The group will be just as competent as before. One can of course continue this way of reasoning, finally asking what will happen when there is only one person left. If somebody says that the group still has competence, then there is no hope for further discussion.
Individuals may learn more and better as members of a group than when they are alone.
There are reasons to believe that there are true group effects leading to improvements that are not a result of statistical effects. As far as research demonstrates this, we can say that groups perform better than the sum of the competence of the individual members of the group. Thus it seems justified to have group exams and to give the group as a unit good or bad notes according to its performance. The problem is, however, that we do not know whether it is the group, one individual, or several individuals or all the individuals who perform better in the group. The answer to this question is of course whether you believe that groups can learn or not. In my view it is nonsense to say that a group can learn. Learning is a process that takes place in individuals. As I said before, if there is ’competence in a group’ there is no competence left if the individuals leave the group.