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.

Structural Engineering… and Middle School Life

When I teach vocabulary, for any subject, I try to have students use each word in a way that is individually meaningful. In my middle school STREAM class, vocabulary can range from simple discussions about the difference between “are” and “our,” to elements and principles of design terms, to engineering terms.

My lunch-time class is small, but challenging. More than sixty percent of the students receive free and reduced lunch; a number of them have warnings right on their electronic attendance record that they are to have no contact, ever, with a parent or some other relative. They are my “most likely to…” group—to wander the halls, to end up on the 7th or 8th grade Core list of students to discuss, to pick a fight, to show up in class after lunch without having eaten because they didn’t like the offering. Still, I was surprised when I went over the structural engineering terms in advance of our paper table unit.

The engineering vocab is a great way to bring teamwork conversation into the class. I usually love it. “Who’s got a good idea what stress means?” I ask.

“You want your definition, or my definition?” a student asks.

“Yours, of course… as long as it has appropriate words.”

“Stress,” he says, “is when you wake up at four in the morning because your baby sister is crying, and you have to get her to go back to sleep before she wakes up your little brother. Stress is when you know if your little sister wakes up your mother, or your mother’s boyfriend, they’ll be really mad at you. It’s when you know that if you don’t get her to sleep, you won’t sleep, and then your teachers will be really mad at you because you fall asleep in their classes, or because you have to stand and move around to stay awake. Stress is knowing all this and knowing that you can’t let your little sister know your stressed, because if you do, she’ll never fall back asleep.”

Whew. I lean on the white board. I’ve heard about this kid’s situation. “That sounds incredibly stressful. Yeah. Especially for someone your age.” The kid is twelve.

Another student raises his hand. “Stress is when you have too much homework and when you just want to sleep, but your mother’s mad at you because you lost your winter coat and a bunch of other stuff. It’s when you feel like everything is coming down on your shoulders.”

Nearly everyone shares some definition of stress, and it’s all in the same vein. But there are parallels to be made.

I draw two pictures on the board.

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“Based on what you all shared, which of these pictures looks to be the most stressful?” I ask. The answer is unanimous.

I alter the pictures.

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“Which of these figures would you rather have come down on your arm? Which is going to break the skin?” Again, unanimous. I ask why.

And so, the kids themselves come up with the best definition of stress. A definition that fits both engineering, and life.

In another class, as we discussed trusses, cross-bracing, right angles, and support against fatigue, the students spontaneously broke out into a 7th-grade rendition of Bill Wither’s song “Lean on Me.”

These opportunities can best be seized if teachers are not rushing to cover material for a test, if administrators value creativity, and if all constituents of the school recognize the need to teach the whole child.

We only cover definitions for compression and compressive strength. I don’t have it in me to cover tension with this group today. We’ll get to that and the remaining eleven words next class.