Friday, May 04, 2007

Project based learning - with meaning.

A study of olden days - A junior study.

I guess my background colours what I like to see when I visit classrooms. Having spent most of my time as a science and art adviser I am am a strong believer in the importance of developing students' interests and talents - and even believe that programmes that feature such things contribute to realistic literacy and numeracy.

But when I visit most classrooms it is hard to see what is the driving interest of the class - mostly I see literacy and numeracy and some art work of doubtful creativity. It is almost as one UK commentator said, 'The evil twins of literacy and numeracy has gobbled up the entire curriculum'. And, to make things worse, all too often the literacy and numeracy teaching I observe is heavily 'scripted' teachers following 'approved' approaches at the expense of teacher professionalism and judgement.

All this has resulted in too much time on, so called, basic skills and not enough on problem solving, reasoning, and exposure to a range of studies that open students eyes to untold possibilities.

Real life problem, or project based, learning presents rich, real and relevant topics for the students to discover, explore and 'construct' their own meanings. Such an holistic, or integrated, approach helps students see connections and relationships between various learning areas - vital future attributes.

To be worthwhile students need to study topics in depth. It is important to 'do fewer things well' if quality thinking is to be achieved. All to often , when I do see such projects displayed around the room, the 'research' is at best superficial. A quick read of a few student charts quickly indicates if what is written on them relates to student focused questions or reflects their own 'voice' or concerns.

A thoughtful curriculum based on realistic projects, many hopefully emerging' out of the students own concerns, is a superior way to learn even if it is difficult to plan for. Too many teachers today seem to believe that they must know the 'outcomes' of any learning before the investigations even starts! At best the teacher can have 'intentions' and ensure the 'big idea' behind any study are covered but true learning often 'unfolds' in unpredictable ways.

If the students are to complete quality research and are able present their work to others in various formats and media they will need to be taught a range information gathering and design skills preferably in context- an important aspect of any modern literacy programme. 'Higher order thinking process skills currently seem to be a feature of many rooms but, without in depth thinking and research to see, they can result in 'thin learning'. Learning without real content is learning at risk.

When done well such learning for students can be 'mind changing' experience - surely this is at the heart of all learning. When students have the skills to call on and the confidence to take learning risks they have the 'power' to turn, through their own actions, their interests into real knowledge. Knowledge in such situations could be seen as a 'verb' - something a person performs, to be seen in action, not to be stored.

Possibly the best programmes 'emerge' out of students personal felt concerns,and community or environmental issues but most students relish digging deeply into studies of other cultures past and present. Creative teachers, in the words of Jerome Bruner, need to be 'expert at the canny art of intellectual temptation'. The best studies begin with key, 'fertile', 'hook' or 'driving' questions, to focus thinking and, if the teachers is wise, he or she, will tap into whatever talents and interests class members have to explore and express issues that they feel important.

Such teachers only need 'official' curriculum to refer to as as a broad guideline.

I have been lucky enough to visit such classrooms over the years but it seems more difficult to achieve such an approach these days with the press of an 'audit culture' hanging over teachers' heads.

In such classrooms the current study is obvious - a provocative heading gains a visitors attention and questions and tasks are on display, along with the researched findings of the students . As well a range of expressive activities, that have been seen as appropriate, catch the eye. And, if doing fewer things well has been taken seriously, then all the work on display, or in progress, is of the highest quality.

What you can't see, but even more important, are the habits of inquiry and the confidence to tackle challenging questions that the students have acquired in the process, and the talents and interests that have been 'uncovered' ; both will ensure students will continue as motivated life long learners.

Take a look around your room, or the next room you visit. Whose ideas and concerns does it express and are you impressed with the quality of all you see?

For ideas to interpret rooms visit our site.


Anonymous said...

What you write about - tapping into and amplifying students talents is what education should be about. Not this mania for testing and 'evidence based' learning ( learning what?) Learning ought to seen by what students can do, perform, demonstrate or exhibit. It is these things that are the 'evidence'. As you say a quick look around any room will soon show the quality of student engagement and the results of their thinking and creativity - or lack of it!

Anonymous said...

What wonderful drawings of the church - and all showing different interpretations. How old are the students?

Bruce said...

The photo comes from a class of 7 and 8 year olds in rural school and was part of their study of a small church across the road.

Small churches are the centre of a wealth of local history as well as symbolism and the importance of religion in some peoples lives.

School environments 'contain' a wealth of, often un-tapped, study topics to explore, research and express ideas about.