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Project-Based Learning
My PBL Odyssey

My PBL Odyssey (Part 1): The Broken Ruler

By Joe Oakey

Reprinted from PBLNEWS, July 1997

I am frequently asked how I became so committed to and passionate about Project-Based Learning. Because the question is so persistent, and Project-Based Learning is becoming such a common phrase in the language of education, I have decided to devote the next three articles in this series to this subject, and to ask you to recall similar experiences in your life that gave meaning to your desire to make education more valuable to the youth of our nation.

The first specific experience I can recall with any detail was with a new teacher in the fifth grade. It was early in the school year, and I assume she wanted to learn a little about each of us personally or make us feel more comfortable in her classroom. As an assignment, Miss X (I don't remember her name, but I do know it was preceded by Miss because married women were not allowed to teach in those days) asked each student to bring to school a pet or some animal we would like to have as a pet.

My home at that time was in a very small rural town, and most of my recreation was in the fields or woods. A little later in life, I would be setting and maintaining a trap line to catch and sell beaver and muskrat traps. There were two critters in which I had a lot of interest, elephants and snakes. Since bringing in an elephant was out of the question, I decided to bring in a snake.

On the day of my presentation, I brought a recently procured garter snake in a brown paper bag. Because of my interest in snakes, I already knew a great deal about its life, what food it preferred, and so on, and I was prepared to talk about all those things.

When I lifted the snake out of the bag, however, Miss X shouted "put it back," grabbed a convenient yardstick out of the chalk tray near her desk, and proceeded to hit me with it. I don't remember any pain, but she hit me so hard that the yardstick broke, and she continued to hit me with the broken end.

I made two resolutions that day. First, I resolved that I would pay back that teacher by not learning anything in her class. The real damage, however, was that I developed a very strong dislike for school and the unreasonable way students were treated there. My second resolution was to quit school as soon as I was old enough. (My father's position as President of the local school board thwarted that decision.)

Thus begins the odyssey leading to the development of my philosophy of Project-Based Learning. Subsequent articles will deal with my experience of five different high schools in three different states, and my "School to Work" experience in the real world of work during my last two years of high school.

About the Author:
Joe Oakey is President Emeritus of the Autodesk Foundation.