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.

What is STREAM?

S: Science  T: Technology  R: Readin’ and wRitin’  E: Engineering  A: Arts and design     M: Math

STREAM is a problem-solving, team-skills teaching, strength-based learning class. If there is only one thing students get out of the class, it is an understanding of the utility of the design cycle. We refer to the design cycle at least once a week.

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STREAM is a class where students are encouraged to take a stab at ideas. If a solution doesn’t work out, they try something different. If the solution works, they tweak what could be done better, and test again. In STREAM, tests aren’t given by the teacher, tests are designed (with guidance from the teacher) and carried out by the student. How else can we hope to teach the design cycle if we rush on to the next project before students implement what they have learned?

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First attempt at one team’s paper table is tested to failure. All teams watch and take notes.

Paper Table, third time through the design cycle.

Paper Table, third time through the design cycle.

If there is a second thing a student pulls from STREAM, it is that everyone has something to bring to the table. Within each team of kids, students choose roles that suit their interests, strengths, and abilities (a separate post about team roles, later). I love the acronym STREAM, because in this class, students find their flow.

Projects this year have been:

GPS:    Map the school grounds. Create a human compass rose on the playing fields. Create a geo-cache treasure hunt for another team. Provide local data to our State Center for Geographic Information.

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The essential question behind our GPS unit

            Alternator: Given magnets and copper wire, design a working alternator.

Windmills: Given a generator, make a windmill that will power a light bulb.

Logo: Create a professional-looking logo for the STREAM class.

Paper Table: PBS Design Squad idea (see their website for this awesome project).  Given 8 sheets of paper, one roll of tape, and a manila folder, students must build a table to hold a heavy book.

Journaling: Every student must keep a journal. Students write for the first five minutes of each block. They reflect on and critique past work. They envision and plan future work. In lieu of vocab quizzes, they use and underline proper terms associated with the project concepts.

A third take-away? Resourcefulness. Fourth? Innovation and agency. Students learn that they are adaptable problem-solvers. Sometimes I surreptitiously place essential materials around the room, and they are only available to teams that spot them and ask. Other times, students have to go dumpster diving. I provide very few clues and almost no direct answers. Kids are welcome to ask other teachers, check the internet, as local experts, and even other teams.

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Students use GPS devices to map school grounds.

Facts and step-by-step instructions are only a skillful internet search away. In the best light, this information is no more than potential energy, and students need to be given the skills to unlock it. STREAM is intended to build the habits and self-perceptions that allow students to be agentive with this knowledge—to be doers.

STREAM is a kinetic class in which energy, in the form of gathered information, flows.