Monday, August 27, 2012

Project-Based Learning: Gimmick or Game-changer?

This is the second of several reflections on project-based learning. 

I.  A question of values

What are you teaching toward

I don't mean what are the goals or objectives for a unit; I certainly don't refer to the so-called "Essential Questions" of a well-known curriculum planning template. 

I'm asking you to describe the vision of the world for which you are preparing your students. I'm asking what you believe they need to know, and why you believe that.  I ask because curriculum theorist Eliot Eisner (1994) writes that in education, values and beliefs are what shape ideas about what schools "should teach, for what ends, and for what reasons" (p. 47). These values are expressed thru decisions about curriculum, evaluation, teaching, etc. 

"Well, duh," I can hear you thinking. But Eisner's not talking only about elements of schooling that you can see, i.e., a course catalog. He's also talking about the elements we're so familiar with that we don't even think about them. Ways in which schools organize time, physical space, daily operations-- all of these emerge from certain ways of seeing or thinking about the world; in turn, they become powerful conveyors of cultural values, with long-term implications. 

For example, schools organize children by age, moving them in age cohorts from grade to grade. Eisner (1994) writes that this orderly practice
reinforces the idea that the task of being a successful student is to learn the content of the grade, a condition that results in promotion to the next. It also reinforces the idea that knowledge is fixed and tidy, that smart people possess it, that textbooks contain it, and that the aim of schooling is its orderly transmission (Jackson, 1986). (Eisner, 1994, p. 55)
Eisner is asking us to think about a specific practice, yes, but he's also asking us to consider that practice as a metaphor for aspects of a larger cultural system. 

Think about the powerful lessons to be found in spelling and math (and standardized tests): the important aspects of school have single, correct answers; the teacher knows these answers; the student's main responsibility is to learn them. Eisner again:
The school creates an environment that does not put much premium on imagination, on personal spirit, or on creative thinking. It emphasizes a form of rationality that seeks convergence on the known more than exploration of the unknown. It emphasizes the virtues of hard work. It limits the degree to which personal goal setting can occur and it rewards conformity to correct outcome more than it rewards productive idiosyncrasy. [My emphases]
Leaning heavily on Eisner, my question asks you to consider what values or beliefs shape your world. Because that world that you carry within you, that's the world you are teaching toward. 

II. How does the question relate to Project-based Learning?

PBL is not just a different, 'cooler', way to cover academic content. Its purpose isn't primarily to "engage" kids, or to "make learning fun,"  even if these frequently are outcomes. Nor is PBL just a different way to do the same old curriculum.

Ultimately, the most effective PBL is built on a different way of seeing the world and the teacher has simply structured class around this way of seeing. 

For example, students are seen as capable and independent. We can tell this by the ease with which students 1) ask questions, 2) talk about their mistakes not as failures but as cues they can use to determine their next move, 3) decide for themselves what they think.  

Students own the learning. We can tell this because they are active in planning and doing, in assessing the progress of the group and themselves as individuals, in problem-solving about the nature of the project's structure and overall organization-- often to the point of expressing more opinions or ideas than the teacher. The teacher talks with students how to do all these things effectively. And, the teacher seems to take his/her cue from the students; s/he appears to be responding rather than initiating or directing. 

The world that students from this classroom are heading toward is not a world where single answers to problems exist, or where people wait for someone to tell them what to do, or where an individual will work alone to accomplish something. 

In other words, the 21st century. 

It's exciting to see/hear the buzz of excitement about project-based learning. But I hear Eisner's caution-- and invitation-- when he says, "As long as we remain oblivious to the values that animate our intellectual life, we will be in no position to modify them" (p. 51). Implementing project-based learning without reflection has just as much potential to be the new gimmick in town, the flash and dazzle that dresses up the same old thing as it does to be a game changer. 

So, you're thinking about trying project-based learning. What are you teaching toward? And, more important, why?

Eisner, E. (1994). The educational imagination : On the design and evaluation of school programs (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan .

Image credit: Universe in a Magic Drop by h.koppdelaney is used via Creative Commons License BY-ND 2.0

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