"We begin to see that the completion of an important project has every right to be dignified by a natural grieving process. Something that required the best of you has ended.  You will miss it." ....Anne Wilson Schaef.

Commentary of the Day - December 8, 2011: Asking for More.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Project-based learning is just one facet of a larger folly, student-directed learning, both of which employ the term "learning" loosely.  The theory is that children should be allowed to pursue their individual interests rather than conform to prescribed content requirements imposed by adults, which explains why even many capable students today know so little about so much but everything about whales or dinosaurs.  Consider the sixth-grade science program where texts are outlawed, "teachers get out of the way," and students just "follow the science," leaving them free presumably to rediscover that the sun revolves around the earth.

Consistent with their rejection of specific content requirements, these reformers commonly also reject tests, preferring instead that students demonstrate what they know through individualized projects. In addition to better demonstrating what students have chosen to learn, experts tell us that students enjoy projects far more than tests, a fanciful assertion my students laughingly dispute each year when I assign their first quarterly history project.

This penchant for projects extends beyond individual subjects, with many schools now requiring that students produce a senior project in order to graduate.  The Los Angeles Times featured one senior's model PowerPoint presentation "on the challenges of trading stock options and what he learned while attempting to climb Mt. Rainier with his father," specifically his self-esteem realization that "he failed because he didn’t believe enough in his abilities."  His personal slideshow was touted as a "better way to assess students' academic achievement" and "readiness" to graduate.

This year the senior project most in the news involved a Toppenish, Washington, student who pretended to be pregnant for six months in order to "explore people's reactions if a top student, someone you wouldn't expect, were to get pregnant."  In on her "ruse" were her mother, principal, and boyfriend.  His parents were outside the circle and according to their son, "thought it was going to be a boy."

Described variously as a "social experiment," a fight "against stereotyping," and a statement about "Latina teen pregnancy rates," the Associated Press reported that her project "resonated with viewers of popular teen mom reality shows" at a moment when "teen moms," including Bristol Palin, have "taken spots alongside movie stars on magazine covers" and MTV.

Let's set aside what lionizing pregnant children says about our society.  Let's forget that there is some reasonable middle ground between tattooing a scarlet letter on a girl and giving her a TV series, but that we don't seem to be able to find it.  Let's also set aside whether a girl who deceives her boyfriend's parents into thinking they're about to be grandparents really qualifies as "empathetic."

Let's examine the scholastic merit of the project itself.

First, pretending to be pregnant in no way "shines light on Latina teen pregnancy rates."  Since her high school is eighty-five percent Hispanic and statistically fifty-one percent of Hispanics become pregnant before they're twenty, her classmates probably already knew someone who was really pregnant.  It's unclear exactly how she "was able to reach her peers" with a new perspective by pretending to be pregnant when they all already knew girls who were actually pregnant.

Second, pregnancy is still a notable condition, especially in high school students, so it's hardly surprising that she found "she was treated quite differently when people thought she was pregnant."  That a classmate might observe that she seemed to be more "annoying" than before she was pregnant is hardly earthshaking data.

In short, while her project got her to Good Morning, America, it, like many "innovative" school activities, is distressingly light on academic content.  Before we leap onto the projects bandwagon, we need to ask ourselves if we want our high school students to be doing more of this, or more of something else.

When students aren't engaging in projects of dubious value, they may find themselves sorting their lunch scraps into buckets in the cafeteria.  In case this sounds unremarkable in a world familiar with recycling, consider that they're sorting their food under the watchful eye of their school's salaried Farm to School Coordinator.  Authorized by Congress and active thus far in nearly ten thousand schools nationwide, Farm to School works to "build links with local farmers," incorporate "farm and food-related topics" in classroom discussions, "encourage students to integrate more fruits and vegetables into their diets," and promote "just" food delivery systems.

Naturally all this takes time and money.  Last year one typical cash-strapped New England small town school received grants for thirty-six thousand dollars to fund food field trips, "free" fruit for snacks, and a school garden.  Since most vegetables in New England are harvested during summer recess, and most school lunches aren't served during summer recess, the school next hopes to purchase a flash freezer so any vegetables raised in the school garden can survive until hot lunch season.  The next time you're wondering why public education costs so much, multiply all the per diem consultants and nonacademic programs by all the schools that receive the funding, and bear in mind that grant money isn't free money.  Somebody, usually us, is paying for it.

In case you're thinking all this just sounds like grousing about something that appears fairly benign, hear me out.

Money is painfully finite these days.  At school, time is even more precious.  As far back as 1983 A Nation at Risk raised the alarm that the "rising tide of mediocrity" in academic achievement was due in large part to our having "lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling" and the "often conflicting demands" on time, money, and expertise that we’ve placed on our schools.

That's why we need to carefully consider adding even activities as seemingly benign as Farm to School.  It's why we need to be even more wary of other touted initiatives, pilot programs, and allegedly cutting-edge, research-based bandwagons.

Before we leap onto anything else, we need to ask ourselves if we want our students doing more of this.

Or more of something else.

© 2011, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP disagrees rather vehemently with Poor Elijah's thesis; namely, that project-based learning activities are just about completely worthless and should not be part of the K-12 curriculum.  To forward his thesis Poor Elijah commits a few serious logical errors.  The first of which is to set up a "straw man."  By focusing on the extreme view that all learning should be experiential, he would have you believe that project-based learning leaves no room in the curriculum for direct instruction.  In most cases that is not true.  Most teachers that the IP has known who use projects, use them to supplement standard instructional techniques, not to replace them.

The second logical error made by Poor Elijah is commonly called "cherry picking the data."  By focusing on an extreme example of a project -- the student who pretended to be pregnant for her senior project -- he gives the impression that the majority of student projects are similarly lacking in educational content.  And, the third logical error is to bring in a "red herring," namely to focus on something -- the Farm to School Program -- that is only tangentially related to project-based learning.

Most teachers whom the IP has known use project-based learning much more judiciously.  The subject matter for a student project often is chosen from a list of topics suggested by the teacher, or if suggested by the student is vetted by the teacher to make sure it is reasonably related to the curriculum.  Then, most of the work on these projects is carried out outside of normal class time, so the students get the usual dose of direct instruction.

The IP believes from his own experience that projects, when properly chosen and supervised, give the student the opportunity to study a topic in depth.  Something that doesn't happen very often in the usual curriculum, where fairly large swaths of knowledge are covered with only modest depth.  The background knowledge from standard instruction is, of course, very important.  But sometimes it's the project that brings that knowledge alive, and wakens a desire in a student to pursue a path to a career in the area covered by the project.

The IP can cite some student projects that are truly amazing in their scope and results.  For example, Angela Zhang, a 17-year-old high school senior from Cupertino, CA recently won a $100,000 scholarship for her first-place finish in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology.  Zhang designed a gold-iron oxide nano-particle to deliver chemotherapy while allowing the effects to be imaged.  Her results have been widely recognized as having the potential to revolutionize cancer treatment.  Of course, not every student project has such spectacular results, but for every dumb student project that Poor Elijah cites, the IP can find one that has genuine educational benefit.

In the end, the IP thinks that there is a place for project-based learning in the K-12 curriculum, provided that it is used intelligently to supplement the standard curriculum rather than replace it.

Irascible Professor invites your  .

© 2011 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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