Teaching & Learning: The Case for Project-Based Learning in the Humanities

Winter 2024

By Brady Smith

This article appeared as "The Next Project" in the Winter 2024 issue of Independent School.

One of the most common arguments for the humanities is that the study of disciplines like English or history is uniquely suited to teaching students to think critically. As an English teacher, I certainly understand the appeal of this argument, and I have found myself making it from time to time.

Another argument for the humanities: They are especially suited to cultivating the art of democratic citizenship. To read deeply and widely is to prepare oneself for the work of not only making a living but being a citizen in a democratic society. I have advocated for this idea in seminars and in parent-teacher conferences over the years. 

But just as I wonder if common pedagogical practices are well-calibrated to teaching critical thinking, so too do I find myself asking if the way we teach humanities is the best approach to cultivating 21st century citizens. The world has shifted markedly since we first laid the foundations of what we know as the humanities, and the citizens of tomorrow demand a somewhat different skill set. So, how can we use our classrooms to begin to cultivate the skills and habits of mind that our students need? 

The Case for PBL

I have my doubts that the modeling approach implied in Socratic seminars or Harkness discussions is always the most effective way to cultivate students’ critical capacities. This kind of thinking can and frequently does happen via discussion, but in my experience, many students don’t take easily to the dialectical process implied in academic conversation. Almost everyone benefits from slowing down and structuring critical thinking in more careful and focused ways. 

One way to make critical thinking more concrete is through thinking routines that provide students with concrete steps to engage difficult texts or ideas, especially in situations in which one might be tempted to resort to the same modeling technique that often confuses students in the first place. But what we often miss in discussions about making thinking visible is that a project process is a thinking routine, one calibrated to precisely produce the kinds of thinking we hope to inspire.

That’s where project-based learning (PBL) can help. Though PBL is an increasingly popular mode of instruction—one built around authentic problems and questions that includes structured rounds of research, prototyping, hypothesis-making, feedback, and revision—many teachers still express skepticism, especially those working in humanities. But over the past five years or so, I have come to see PBL in my middle and high school English classes as not only compatible but also deeply complementary aspects of teaching and learning. 

Harkness discussion, close reading, and critical writing will always have a place in humanities classrooms and can in fact form a critical part of the project process in the humanities. But if we’re serious about teaching students to think critically, become engaged citizens, and live lives of passion and purpose, we need more creative, student-centered modes of instruction. 

Teaching Students How to Think

The particulars of a PBL cycle will depend greatly on the project. Regardless of the outcome, though, the project cycle is designed to make visible the thought processes professionals and experts engage when trying to marshal critical thinking to solve a problem in their field. It’s also designed so that answers, whatever they are, are ultimately provisional. Students learn to consider questions and answers as open-ended and subject to constant revision—precisely the kind of thinking that students do when they learn to think critically. 

Two key features of PBL might help humanities teachers prepare students for the future. First, PBL inherently engages interdisciplinary thinking. As students examine global issues that dominate current headlines, such as the climate crisis, economic inequality, social disintegration, or homelessness, multiple disciplines emerge—geophysics, social studies, or economics, for instance. Developing students who can think critically across multiple disciplines is as important as ever, and the open-endedness of PBL as an instructional mode invites students to use their own skills and experiences to solve problems, creating their own interdisciplinary frameworks as they go. 

As well as being interdisciplinary, PBL is collaborative, pushing against the boundaries of classrooms and schools, asking students to interact with one another and with the public at large. Successfully completing a project requires cooperation from participants who bring different knowledge, interests, and expertise to the work. Students learn to blend thinking and action, putting academic skills together with forms of cognition and representation important to moving through a complex and constantly changing world. 

Making the Good Life

Humanities education is especially important in helping students figure out who they are and what they want to do. This claim can take different forms depending on who makes it. For some writers, it emerges from the experience of having found themselves, or found their purpose, in a book. For others, the idea is that a readerly life is the only life worth living. What a world we would have if everyone found themselves in books! 

But as important as this claim is, I’ve come to think that it’s also one of the many kinds of provincialisms to which teachers are vulnerable. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t aim to expose as many people as possible to the texts and ideas that have traditionally lived under the umbrella of “the humanities.” But when we argue for the centrality of reading to living, most of us are preaching to the choir. What does a good life look like if it isn’t the lovingly curated library of an English or history teacher’s dreams? 

As with teaching students to think and cultivating the art of citizenship, PBL has something else important to offer teachers who want to help students develop a sense of purpose. PBL arises out of numerous different concerns in teaching and learning, but among the most important is student agency and student engagement. In a traditional classroom, teachers usually define what students do and how they approach it; students are assessed based on how well they reproduce what a teacher has demonstrated. Such methods can get in the way of authentic student engagement in the learning process, engagement that often separates rote learning from the deep and transformative experiences that we all want in our classrooms. 

For many students, the experience of school can feel alienating. PBL addresses this problem by enabling multiple pathways through which students can enter projects, and thus multiple options for students to explore their own interests in the classroom. The value of PBL in such contexts is that instead of relying on teachers to make the case for why reading poetry matters, it opens the door for students to make meaning out of poetry for themselves. 

Not everyone who takes a course in which such opportunities are available will go on to major in English or philosophy or classics. They may never pick up a copy of Homer or Jane Austen again. But they will have the experience of digging deeply into a complex work of literature or philosophy and constructing links between it and their own curiosities and concerns. It may not represent the humanities as traditionally constituted. But it does represent the humanities we need.

Read More

If you liked this article on project-based learning, check out these related Independent School magazine articles at nais.org/magazine/independent-school. 

Brady Smith

Brady Smith teaches eighth grade English at Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah.