By John Sener
[Note: This article is a response to Harry Keller and John Adsit's articles in Flight of the ‘Solar Impulse’ – Educationally Relevant? All were prompted by Claude Almansi's Online in RealTime announcement. -js]
OK, this takes the discussion even further away from its original topic, but I found myself fascinated by several aspects.
First: Why do science projects essentially have to be labs? If science is fundamentally a way of thinking, why not also do projects that teach students how to think scientifically without having to use a lab? Field work? Conceptual work? Thought experiments?
Second: About the disconnect between the “learning” and the “project” parts of “project-based learning” — yes, but it’s a trap to assume that every educational experience should be oriented toward the mastery of important content or of skills directly related to that content. For example, consider the comment:
Even if this were important information, consider how much class time and energy was spent for the purpose of learning something that could have been accomplished with a 30 second review of a diagram.
1. If we do a 30-second review of a diagram, is it safe to assume that students will really get it? And what does it mean to “get” it? It is so easy to refer to the existing model of information transmission as if it were a comparative baseline of complete effectiveness when in fact we know it’s not, if only we remind ourselves. I believe this has long been one of the major drivers of project-based learning: as a means of recognizing that information transmission is not 100% effective and as an alternative strategy to reach more students more deeply.
2. It would be useful to know the intended purposes of the sugar cube/popsicle stick Globe Theater exercise. Surely the teachers did not have any state content standards or mastery of a Globe Theater diagram in mind; otherwise, they would have gone the 30-second “show the diagram” route. What other purposes did they have in mind, and how well did the activity fulfill those purposes that did not relate to content?
3. The comment quoted above, as formulated, implies that class time and energy were wasted because the information could have been learned more efficiently by a simpler means. We can argue about whether or not this was an appropriate or useful expenditure of class time and energy, but we should do so in the context of the multiple purposes being served by the activity. My own sense is that building sugar cube/popsicle stick Globe Theaters is also a waste of time — then again, I still vividly remember certain art projects I did in elementary school, and I’ve seen how doing art and music projects have helped my own son’s cognitive understanding of other subjects. So I would want to know the entire context: Was the activity meant to be engaging? To give students an otherwise rare kinesthetic learning opportunity? Or a chance for a little bit of relative down-time in lieu of recess time that was taken away from them so that they could do more drill-and-kill practice for standardized tests? Was it an opportunity for them to exercise a little bit of creativity in an otherwise creativity-free school day? As a way for them to literally construct some deeper understanding of knowledge of content previously studied? Depending on the context, any or all of those purposes could be far more valuable to students than using that time to “teach” them another chunk of the state content standards.
At the same time, it would seem to require special skill or imagination to enable students to make a connection between a sugar cube/popsicle stick Globe Theater and a Shakespearean play. So I agree with the implicit criticism of project-based learning that too many project-based activities treat projects as if they had magical instructional qualities — just do a project and BAM! instant deep, engaged learning. So, as I find myself wondering how an imaginative teacher could help students make the connection between sugar cube/popsicle stick Globe Theaters and a Shakespearean play, I also wonder how many teachers would bother to focus on such a connection.
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