History and Philosophy of Project-Based Learning at Future University HAKODATE (FUN)


Welcome to the second installment of this new five-article series on an exciting and innovative development in the global education futures space – Project-Based Learning – at FUTURE UNIVERSITY HAKODATE. The first article was an overview of the PBL initiative at FUN while this second article focuses on the History and Philosophy of PBL at FUN.

What We Mean by Project-Based Learning at Future University

This chapter from Professor Noyuri Mima’s book The Design of Project-Based Learning – Learning Methodologies to Transform Our Futures introduces the background from which the Project-Based Learning (PBL) initiative evolved and the pedagogic philosophies and thinking that underlie its design and successful implementation within the context of a unique Japanese university, Future University Hakodate. PBL is discussed in terms of its novel approaches and how these can be applied not only to Japanese educational institutions but equally effectively to those around the world. This chapter also addresses some of the misconceptions associated with PBL and how these can be creatively flipped and applied with a view to building futures-oriented educational environments.

Origins of PBL

The beginnings of the Project-Based Learning initiative are formed by the confluence of two major factors. The first factor involved massive developments in science and technology, in particular digital technologies which many consider having contributed most to accelerated social change. The second factor involves a conceptual shift from mere ‘education’ to ‘learning.’ Both factors are complex and mutually influencing. We now explore how these two factors interact and what synergies emerge.

Rapid Social Change and What We Can Do

Advances in both science and technology have brought massive and rapid social change during the 20th century, primarily in the form of better healthcare, social infrastructure, computing, and telecommunications amongst others. Particularly in the 1970s, manufacturing, distribution systems, globalization and ongoing digitization have impacted strongly on how we live and go about our daily lives. These general global changes have in turn brought major changes to Japan in terms of its ageing society, ongoing urbanization and the proliferation of new forms of social inequality.

Many initiatives have merged from this new society such as rural revitalization, better awareness of gender equality, the fostering of the global citizen, and various forms of social innovation, all which contribute to the need for new types of education. Added to this, on a global scale we see the effects of climate change, increasing populations, and complex issues forming around food, water and energy futures. With this brooding international background, it is little wonder that there is a worldwide call for an overhaul of our education systems suggesting a transition from a teacher-student transmission model to a re-questioning of what constitutes learning and knowledge.

Three Perspectives on the Learning Revolution

In his book 「教育方法学」 or Pedagogical Methodologies, Japanese educationalist Manabu Satoh argues for a shift away from individualist passive education to a more collaborative education style which he structures around three related concepts. The first involves a transition away from the industrial age derived model with its emphasis on stand-alone subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology and geology, to a more holistic, integrative range of subjects including mathematical chemistry, the life sciences, materials sciences, and space-earth-environmental sciences.

His second concept is that of life-long learning, representing a transition away from an over-emphasis on the school as the dominant site of learning. With ever-increasing human longevity and accelerating knowledge around specialty fields, learning is conceived as a continuous process. The third concept suggests a paradigm shift around the psychology of learning of which the defining shift moves away from behaviorist approaches as key to a more social constructivist approach to education. Rather than the learner as a self-motivated learner who learns by rote, the newly conceived learner is engaged interactively with his or her society from which knowledge forms organically from the interactions between learner, environment and continuous discussions with community fellows.

New Approaches to Learning

Conventionally, approaches to learning can be conceived along two lines. In the first, knowledge and technique is transferred to the learner, while in the second approach, the learner is required to scrutinize the knowledge and techniques derived from others in conjunction with one’s own knowledge and experiences in a process of exploring methods that form novel thinking based on a certain attitude towards the acquisition of knowledge.

Learner-Centered Learning

It is this second approach that in the early twentieth century was promoted by American progressive educationalist-philosopher John Dewey and his contemporaries. This approach referred to as either child-centered or learner-centered may be misconstrued as allowing children free reign to do whatever they so desire. However, there is more to it than this simplistic understanding. What is important in understanding this approach is the conceptual shift from the teaching to the learning as the fundamental focus.

Designing Learning Environments

In 2005 Japan’s Central Education Committee, under an umbrella concept which referred to the 21st century as a Knowledge Based Society, a vision of the future was formed around the areas of politics, economy and culture amongst other aspects of modern society. This future vision promoted the centrality of new knowledge creation, information and technology as the basis for this emerging societal paradigm. It was in this spirit that Japanese educationalist Shinichi Mizogami (2014) advanced the understanding that ‘knowledge is not fixed’ but rather ‘exploratory’ and accordingly, our current times should be construed as an ‘Exploratory Knowledge Based Society.’

New Normative Learning Frameworks

While the defining thought paradigm for the 20th century may have been Computational Thinking, the 21st century now recognizes the importance of STEAM-based education, as actively promoted by Professor Noyuri Mima of Future University Hakodate (FUN). With its origins in the American K-12 education system from pre-school through to year 12 of high school, the typical STEAM curriculum consists of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics.

STEAM and its variations are generally considered to be the main pillars for an effective and relevant education skills set in the 21st century. STEAM can be understood as an extension of design-oriented thinking which inherently involves creative processes such as problem solving and prototyping as mechanisms for generating designed artefacts that can be applied to real-world situations.

Complementing this skill set is the above-mentioned Computational Thinking (CT) with its orientation for computer-related tasks that solve problems involving analyses of data, data modelling, simulations, problem systematization, testing of possible solutions, and understanding of algorithms. CT can be applied well beyond conventional computer related work to the broader spheres of economics, law, life sciences, archaeology, journalism, social sciences and the humanities in general. At FUN, STEAM inspired thinking is considered vital to effective learning in our highly technologized 21st century society and as such STEAM subjects are studied not in stand-alone form but as strategically integrated between and across subjects.

Engineering Design

The concept of Engineering Design (ED) was first introduced in the United States in 2013 by the NGSS or Next Generation Science Standards for States (2013). In a nutshell, ED as an education approach involves identifying problems in the context of limited resources in a rapidly changing society with a view to forging appropriate questions, followed by the generating and testing of prototypes which are then optimized.

This educational approach can be traced to the so-called Soviet Sputnik Shock of 1957 which spurned a dramatic shift towards scientific enquiry in the United States. From this Soviet-USA space race the concept of ‘doing science’ and thinking and behaving like a scientist became an aspirational educational goal for students in the USA. This involved formulating hypotheses, conducting experiments and observing the results – constituting a major conceptual educational transformation in the USA. In terms of Project-Based Learning at Future University, the implications for ED are that we aspire to transcend conventional Engineering Design at Future University and direct all students to apply this as a generic approach to all education tasks in the context of a finite world with limited resources demanding creative solutions to complex problems.

Sociality of Learning

With the transformation of educational thinking in the 21st century, it is a priority at Future University to strategically design and optimize the collaborative nature and sociality of the Project-Learning program. This shift away from passive learning seeks to motivate students to learn within the context of team-building and with a view to generating meaningful results for the betterment of their situated communities.

The Essence of Project-Based Learning

To sum up the core essence of our Project-Based Learning initiative, students learn to collaborate in teams and in close communication with their academic staff to explore and find solutions to real-world problems. This sometimes involves working closely with local organizations in order to create products and/or innovative systems.

In terms of the objectives and unique features of PBL, students are motivated to collaborate in their given teams knowing that their research and problem-solving solutions are grounded in real-world community circumstances for which they can make a tangible and measurable difference. This unique PBL experience can then be applied outside of and beyond their university life as an ongoing communicative process and way of thinking and doing for the community they find themselves in their personal futures.

Another PBL feature is that the team project is expected to unfold and be shaped not by course content itself but by the nature of the theme the PBL teams select. To illustrate, imagine the selected theme at the center of an infographic, with multiple spokes representing the roles of communication, data collection, collation of results, experiment evaluations, systems and web design, and other factors that collectively make up the research project. The central research theme could be around tourism or the environment, healthcare or food issues, demanding that the student learners build their own map of research factors to ensure completion of the PBL task.

Another feature that frames the essence of our PBL program is the core concept of ‘transformative competencies’ – which was promulgated in the OECD’s (2018) The Future of Education and Skills: Education 2030. Promoted as a skill for the 21st century, transformative competencies refer to the capacity for learners to create new value, mitigate tensions arising around social issues, promote abilities to minimize dilemmas, all while maintaining a sense of responsibility for the team’s research and outcomes.

As a means to achieving more effective learning outcomes, PBL often involves producing a tangible physical artefact, but these are not limited to tech models or robots. Typically, this object-making can be broken into three main stages: writingmaking; and discovering. The first stage writing means to externalize the idea in an embodied form such as a blueprint, that also demonstrates the thinking that has informed the initial design. In the second phase making, trial and error informs the building of an MVP – or minimal viable product – for the artefact, while phase three discovering, reflects on the former phases with a view to refine, re-conceptualize, and reflect on what has been done.

Misconceptions about PBL

As with any social innovation, PBL is open to misunderstandings. No educational innovation is without flaws or leeway for improvement. Firstly, Project-Based Learning is not just the same as simply ‘making a project.’ With PBL the emphasis is clearly on the experiences the learners have had during the totality of the processes and interactions that have gone into the solving of a real-world problem – including the failures and successes, work with community-based organizations, and the communication and justification of research outcomes.

A final word relates to misunderstandings that have arisen around PBL as it gains popularity across increasing numbers of educational institutions. These usually emerge from the various perspectives of the teaching staff, the student learners, associated collaborating organizations, or community groups.

For the teacher, there is a perception that all they need to do is think of a good theme and identify some extra-university partners while letting the students take control of the project. From the POV of the student, PBL units can be perceived as a light-hearted breather from ‘real’ studies. PBL is a good opportunity to have a relaxed attitude and as long as students put on a good show at the final presentation, all will be well. For some organizational partners, perplexed about how to increase the numbers of customers, they oversimply the nature of the PBL process and expect the young student minds working for free will solve all their real-world commercial problems! Similarly, communities themselves confounded by the common problem of ghetto shopping strips, naively expect students will forge solutions within the space of less than a year to these chronic social problems, while failing to consider and implement longer term strategies.

‘Sanpou-Yoshi’ 三方よし or ‘Win-Win-Win’ PBL

We conclude this article for our would-be student readers with a few words about the traditional Japanese commercial concept of sanpou-yoshi, which we loosely translate as a win-win-win strategy. The winners we refer to are the seller; the buyer; and the society at large. In our variation upon this theme, the first winner is the student. Former course feedback interviews suggest that students are highly satisfied with the overall PBL experience in terms of its learning outcomes, positive effects on their learning motivations, and on their self-development as productive members of society.

For the instructor, benefits reported include identifying new and innovative personal research leads, improvements in their own leadership skills, and refinements to their own teaching associated skill sets. In terms of society at large, PBL generates much interest and excitement throughout local communities and organizations which in turn often leads to the ongoing development of research projects bringing benefits across the community thereby adding to the popularity and effectiveness of the Project-Based Learning initiative.

From this sanpou-yoshi type win-win-win relationship, synergies between collaborating parties ultimately give rise to new and surprising forms of value creation, the effects of which are often hard to quantify but clearly felt by the student learners and the communities in which they conduct their projects.

Part 3

Translated by Dr. David Lindsay Wright, former Associate Professor of FUN and coordinator for Project-Based Learning, 2004 – 2011, as adapted from the original Japanese text by Professor Noyuri Mima (Chief Editor)
June 2018

Keep an eye out for our third installment around the Project-Based Learning experience at FUTURE UNIVERSITY HAKODATE. We welcome any enquiries you may have about the book, the university, the academic staff, or the courses themselves. Have FUN learning!