Saturday, September 29, 2007

The challenge of project based learning

Most schools have a historical site ( this is a European Redoubt from the Land Wars) to base an in depth research project on.

If schools were really student centred then all learning should be based around in depth relevant inquiries integrating whatever subject areas and skills necessary.

This the approach young children use before formal schooling but from the moment schooling begins the teachers agenda and predetermined skills take precedence; the students lives and real concerns and interests become sidelined. There is no need for such a 'shift' in learning approach. Project based learning ( or inquiry learning) is a natural extension of how students learn and ought to be central to schooling at all stages.

In Junior classes, unfortunately, an obsession with a 'Victorian three Rs' literacy and numeracy agenda takes precedence and, in secondary schools, subject specialisation requires all learning to be divided up into centuries old isolated compartments.

No wonder many students become disengaged.

It is no great challenge to introduce inquiry learning as the basis of education in primary schools, if teachers wanted to, but it is problematic at the secondary level where teachers are 'trained' to teach within their specialties. The resulting subject timetabling limits any real cross curricular experimentation with such an idea. A small number of innovative secondary schools however ( mainly newly established) base their learning on an integrated inquiry approach so it is not impossible. Introducing the idea in years 9 and 10 is possibility for all schools, even if only over two or three subject areas at first.

In America the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 'champions' 'project based learning'. Bill Gates has stated that he feels American High Schools, as currently structured, are obsolete and that eduction ought to redesigned to be 'real, relevant and rigorous' to solve the disengaged learner problem.

Secondary schools that have tried the idea have not always found it easy as such an approach requires teachers to embrace new attitudes, develop new skills and to risk failure. It is a lot easier to continue with the 'status quo'. Excellent resources for school, who might be thinking about introducing such ideas, are the Big Picture Company and the Edutopia site.

Project based learning can be introduced in separate subject studies but ideally integrate other learning area as required. Most often an inquiry does not fit into one particular subject although there is often a focus on certain subjects. Ideally teachers need to collaborate to share their expertise and students needs to work in team to research particular aspects. Students ( along with teachers) will have particular skills that can be utilized.

Such ideas cut across, not only the idea of timetabling, but also 'coverage'. The approach requires teachers to believe in 'less is more' and the importance of developing positive attitudes towards learning in students by doing 'fewer things well' and, in the process, developing in-depth understanding by students.

New thoughts about assessment need to be developed
. Teachers work with students as learning 'advisers'( 'coaches') and engage in 'learning conversations' to clarify and challenge students thinking and providing appropriate feedback and 'scaffolding' as required. Although 'formative' assessment is integral to the approach the major assessment is realised in the final presentations, demonstrations and performances. All such final products have negotiated rubrics or criteria so students can self assess their own progress.

On the positive side it encourages teacher collaboration, breaking down the privatisation of practice that limits secondary education. It also allows the natural integration of information technology that all to often is underused at all levels of schooling. Inquiry learning also leads into a 'personalisation' of learning.

When schools decide to implement such an approach, learning as they go along, the support and feedback from fellow teachers, and school leadership, will be vital and will make all the difference.Schools once they get involved will find that their are all sorts of resources they can make use of.

Our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum encourages such an approach.

All we need is for teachers to change their minds first and schools could become, 'real, relevant and rigorous', for all students.


Anonymous said...

It would seem that secondary schools are not themselves 'learning communities' - more dedicated to preserving their past or the 'status quo' than facing their students' futures.

Bruce Hammonds said...

It would seem obvious to anyone, except traditional teachers, that learning should be built around what engages the learner and that, in the process, teachers should challenge their students thinking and ensure appropriate learning 'how to learn' skills are gained in the process.