What’s Getting in the Way of Project-Based Learning?

There are calls all over the place to move more opportunities to move around into the classroom. Kids need to move. They learn well if they can use their hands while they’re using their brains (and so… we give them stress balls instead of hand tools? Is this smart? But I digress).

My vision paper for my administrator certification was on a school model called Storied Learning, where students see themselves as the heroes at the centers of their own educational journeys. My next few posts will be excerpts from that paper.

One year, when my son had a significant gap in his schedule, I suggested he consider a course at the technical school just across the river. My wife, very much a forward thinker and a true success story of the educational approach of the 20th century, and my son both had the same kneejerk reaction: NO! Few people would argue against the practical side of Storied Learning, STEM labs, Project-Based Learning, ILOs, and so on. But what is it about our culture that is getting in the way of implementing experiential learning in our liberal arts educations?
In 1899, Thorstein Veblen published his work The Theory of the Leisure Class. In a nutshell, Veblen suggested that society has not evolved quite as far from our barbarian roots as we might like to believe. In barbarian cultures, the elite were warriors, religious figures, and political leaders. Thus, the elite had the time and the energy at the end of the day to party—to enjoy conspicuous consumption—a term coined by Veblen himself. Those who worked with their hands were inferior (e.g. women, smiths, farmers). The elite-acceptable jobs evolved, through the centuries, to include careers in certain businesses, law, medicine, and education. Those who work with their hands, and are thus physically involved in necessary industries, continue, Veblen argued, to maintain lower rungs on the social ladders.

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This student belonged to a team that made a windmill from scratch. By the time they finished, they were able to use it to power a light bulb. Their progress from the point this picture was taken up until the windmill lit that bulb was quite a story!

Hence, today, even though research shows a strong correlation between hands-on learning and retention, the resistance to grand scale implementation of it on the part of educators and government alike, is very likely to have its roots in class snobbery.

Summers, Snow Days, Better Ways to Measure Student Progress

Snow Days Don’t Hurt Student Progress!

–a finding by Harvard Professor Joshua Goodman

The spring that I turned six, I learned how to ride a bike. Early that summer, I rode my boy_bike_street_375pxbicycle to the penny candy store. The quarters in my pocket covered the purchase of thirty fireballs at three for a nickel. I didn’t eat them. I pedaled back to our summer house, where I sold them two for a nickel to our guests and to my siblings, netting a profit of twenty-five cents, which I reinvested in my fledgling company. Very soon, I could no longer operate out of my pockets. I used an empty Kleenex Box, then an old sewing machine table to display my assorted candies.


 

My cousins, my brothers and sisters could rot their teeth from the following menu:

  •     Fireballs:        2 for 5¢
  •     Smarties:        2 for 5¢
  •     Bubble Gum: 3¢ (Bazooka or Double Bubble)
  •     Mary Janes:    3¢
  •     Bit-o-honey:   3¢
  •     Licorice:          5¢ (red or black, long shoestring variety)
  •     Bottle Caps:    5¢
  •     Charms’ Pops: 5¢ (Tootsie or blow)
  •     Candy Sticks:   7¢ (same price as the store, but I did not pass on my quantity      discount
  •  Asst, boxed:    10 – 20 ¢ (Hot Tamales, Jujyfruits, Junior Mints, Good~n~Plenty, Neccos, etc.)

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For a quarter each, I also managed to sell a few pieces of my art to doting older aunts and cousins. My work was drawn on lined, three-ring binder paper. I offered a dScreen Shot 2015-05-13 at 6.32.46 PMog’s face, a tree, and a pig. Also, I have a confession to make, and I hope my siblings and cousins will forgive me. The gum, Mary Janes, and Bit-o-honey cost me the same as the fireballs and SmScreen Shot 2015-05-13 at 6.29.52 PMarties, but I wanted a better profit margin.

Despite competition from my mother, who had hung art of a more professional quality around the house, and also offered healthier snacks, such as popcorn and carrot sticks, out of the kitchen, for free, I did quite well. I bought a Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 6.26.12 PMkite and an extra roll of twine with the profits. I also ate some of the profits. But at the end of the summer I opened my first bank account, number 235-16610, with ten dollars.


I run into a lot of people who say that kids don’t do that sort of thing these days. All kids do is text, game, watch videos. Those people are wrong. I see hundreds of kids every day, and they too have dreams and ideas that they act on, if they have the time. And then ‘those people’ say, no, given the time, the kids will just sit down and play video games. Perhaps, but I know a lot of kids who, of their own volition, are learning code, and are trying to write their own games, or their own apps… perhaps we should recognize that today’s $2.00 app may be the penny candy of the new generation, and these guys want in on the deal. But the system we adults have created does not allow the time, nor teach our students the habits of self-agency and resourcefulness that they need. Our present system focuses too much on test taking.

Which brings me back to snow days. (We hardly want to talk about those in May, but suffer on, please).

Test scores are the number one go-to for measuring student progress. I did not read Joshua Goodman’s study of snow days. I only read about the finding, cleverly reprinted on the weather page of our local paper. Test scores were the only measure for success listed in the article. If Professor Goodman went to neighborhoods to see the snow forts or the snowmen the kids built, or how the kids put into practice their intuitive knowledge of the inclined plane by sledding down the steep part of a hill and going back to the top by taking a gentler contour, the article didn’t mention it.

Maybe I’m in a confessing mood because it is a Sunday morning… but I have another. Stephanie Bilak, from second grade, if you are out there… I had a mind-block back then about the answer for 3 + 6. Despite having money in the bank, I was awfully anxious. So, I copied you. It was the last time I ever cheated, because where our wonderful teacher, Miss Napoleon, had written “Name:______,” I also copied you. I wrote down your name.

My point is that testing for math may tell how good of a test-taker one is, but at least in my case, it gives little hint at the capacity or inclination to apply the knowledge. Test-taking may have its place, but that place ought to be much smaller than we make it. Our most important assessments of teacher effectiveness and student learning are an accounting of how the students implement their knowledge in their own lives. In my case, I had been employing math all summer as I ran my store, but 3 + 6, on a piece of paper, simply felt entirely irrelevant.

What if, on a snow day, teachers didn’t stay at home, but spilled out into the streets to play with the kids? Imagine the math and science teachers explaining the whys of what the students are already discovering—such as the calculation that supports their finding that the 18-inch ball of the snowman’s belly weighs way, way more than twice as much the 9-inch ball they made for his head. Effective snow shoveling is a great example of levers and mechanical advantage.

For English and Social Studies teachers, there is nothing like unstructured play to help a person realize that they are part of the story of the human condition. A child in the snow may relate better to Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, Wilder’s epic blizzard in The Long Winter, the fierce cold of London’s To Build a Fire, Shackleton’s survival on the ice, and the miserable cold and deprivation of the French troops during their 1812 foray into Russia. The shared experience of cold and snow may be the best hook for student engagement many subjects. A vague awareness that some day, a question about these stories might prompt you to fill in the correct oval with a number two pencil, well. It teaches the unfortunate importance of obedience.

Although Stephanie Bilak wasn’t anywhere near me when I took the SATs, the GREs or the Military Officer’s Exam, I did well enough. But I want to share my career trajectory. When I became old enough, I got a summer job with the same family that ran the penny candy store, and developed a fondness for inventory control. On the side, I sold my artwork, which had advanced from line drawings to woodburnings and driftwood sculpture, at a local gallery. Two years after I graduated college, I joined the Navy as a supply officer. My military job was not all that different than pedaling candy and selling souvenirs on an island: I made sure that our ship had everything it needed to run: I was in charge of purchasing and planning for the food (I had moved up in the world from sugar to deep-fry). I oversaw the ship’s store, the vending machines, the barbershop, the laundry, the payroll, travel claims and shipboard purchasing contracts. I was in charge of about a hundred people. After my Navy stint, I went back to that summer town and opened a grocery store and wholesale business. My inventory suggested my maturity through its concentration of natural products. And, at one point, I employed more than 90% of the graduating class from the local school.

The business was remarkably successful, and well loved, but I sold it to free up time when my children were born. Afterward, what I really missed was working with kids. That is what led me to a second career in education.

There is, I am sure, a correlation between my passing the standardized tests and the relative success I have had. But the step by step cause and effect that has brought me to successful adulthood has had more to do with free time than with seat time. Seat time helped me learn that I had a very hard time sitting still. It was during my down time–snow days and summers–that I engrossed myself in projects and discovered my strengths.

If we moved more projects into our classrooms, perhaps the adverse effect of snow days on learning might actually materialize, and wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?