‘Solar Impulse’ – Could Very Well Be Educational

John SenerBy 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.

2 Responses

  1. Please note that this is a generic response to the need to evaluate project-based activities on their complete merits, and not just assume that because it is a project, it must be good.

    In reference to science, I use the word “lab” very loosely, and that definition includes the items you mention. If you read the Guidelines for Student Scientific Investigations I referenced earlier, I argue in it for just such an expanded definition. As authors representing the consensus of the committee that came up with those guidelines, we described science instruction that used a variety of methods to teach students scientific thinking rather than courses that memorized the results of the thinking of others.

    As I said earlier, I am a major proponent of project-based learning; I just believe that in planning it, you have to be sure students are actually learning what you are intending them to learn. One has to recognize that such projects take time, and if you devote a lot of time to something that does not produce valuable learning, then you have less time left for instruction, including other projects, that does produce valuable learning. You must essentially do a cost-benefit analysis: is the benefit my students are receiving worth the time invested in it?

    To give another true life example, I know a teacher who decided to do a unit on the Harlem Renaissance. He decided that he wanted them to get the flavor of the period, so he spent 2 class periods a week for 6 weeks teaching them how to swing dance. I am sure that students might have achieved the purpose of that activity much more than if they had watched a film showing swing dancing for 10-15 minutes, but at what cost? How much time had students lost for activities—including project-based activities—that would teach them reading, writing, and the other skills normally associated with English Instruction?

    The era of the sugar cube Globe Theaters was before the era of state content standards, and learning like that is actually one of the reasons state content standards came into existence. I was on the Colorado Goals 2000 committee in those days, overseeing the creation of standards. I was also in staff development, working to bring innovative education to the classroom. We taught students to use standards when planning instruction, and we taught them project-based learning, which we felt was a better way to teach them those standards. What we had to teach them, though, was the difference between projects with educational value and projects with no educational value. The Globe Theater project was one we pointed out as time not well spent. There were others.

    Yes, we want students to have kinesthetic experiences, and we want them to use their imaginations. Such instruction was the hallmark of what I did in those days—I just made sure that those experiences actually taught something valuable, and I tried to strike a balance between the value of what they learned and the amount of time it took to learn it.

  2. I think that we all agree that the terms lab and project are fuzzy. In the other thread, I told what they mean to me, briefly.

    I think the point of John Adsit’s comment (as I understand and agree with it) is that you have limited time with students and should use it as constructively as possible. It’s an argument I frequently use in the context of science labs. Learning science content by doing labs uses time and money inefficiently, especially in courses where labs occur only once every couple of weeks or even less frequently.

    If, instead, you chose to do labs every day, you wouldn’t even begin to cover all of the science content required by even most liberal state standards.

    As for usefulness, that’s one of the primary concerns of America’s Lab Report. They ask why is this lab being done and require that the purpose of each lab be clearly stated and that it be integrated cleanly with the overall course.

    It all comes down to balance. The parameters are time, money, learning content, and learning the subject. [I left out teacher sanity. :-)]

    I recently read through a middle-school project-based science textbook and found that it concentrated more on the project boards than on the science and that I found little inquiry-exploration-discovery of science but much engineering. This sort of thing can be valuable in modest doses but not as a steady diet throughout a science course, in my opinion.

    I think that we’re basically in the same place. Each activity, even a lecture, must have its purpose known. Balance in time spent, types of activities, and all other parameters of learning must be achieved to optimize results. Easier said than done but nothing tried equals nothing done.

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