Monday, February 8, 2010

Projects, Play, & Process Push Back

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, a group of students in my class loved to dance. They danced in the line to lunch, they danced while they cleaned up materials, they even occasionally danced during scripted phonics lessons. Guided by older, more experienced ECE teachers and study of the Project Approach and Reggio Emilia, I decided to try to let them dance -- in a way that would push their learning. Our school's phenomenal librarian pulled a whole basket of books on singers and dancers and instruments, and one fine afternoon my students and I end up leafing (or, in literacy terms, taking "picture walks") through these books, interpreting the pictures, and reading captions and quotations. They begin to hear and use new vocabulary words like "costumes," "ballet," and "choreography." And when, spurred by the suggestion of transforming our dramatic play area into a "dance studio" like the ones they are reading about, five-year old Aaliyah (pseudonym) asks urgently if she can write on a nearby paper bag. Deep in concentration, she forms the crayon letters "KOSTMZ" -- thereby labeling the bag as home for the new "costumes" her friends are measuring fabric scraps for. In 30 minutes, Aaliyah has used text as a source of information, independently produced a new vocabulary word, and used letter-sound knowledge to write most sounds in a complex word -- many more than the beginning and sometimes ending sounds she typically records during our less authentic writing lessons.

You can tell I like projects. So for once, my teacher heart has been jumping for joy as I read big-name op-eds and non-profit blogs. As many, many bloggers have noticed, people are TALKING about Susan Engel's NYT Op-Ed, "Playing to Learn." Teachers and parents are talking -- often by sharing Engel's op-ed. And policy wonks, researchers, and administrators are talking back -- often by blogging with criticisms of Engel's piece. (Among them are Daniel Willingham, Core Knowledge, Early Ed Watch, and Whitney Tilson.) Both camps make valid points -- but we often seem to be talking past each other.

Any time so many practitioners are so excited about an idea that other "experts" characterize as counterproductive for children, we need to ask ourselves -- Why? Are teachers really so out of touch with what students need to succeed? (If you answer "yes," I urge you to take a few minutes to examine your own experiences with children and your overall faith in adults.) Of course, there are some bad teachers out there, teachers who are out of touch with student achievement. But, I believe, there are many more good teachers who genuinely want children succeed, are willing to work hard to help them, and just need better systems to do it. So -- my answer to the puzzle of why so many practitioners love an idea that often doesn't lead to student achievement: It's the right place to go, we just haven't figured out how to get there yet.

First -- why are projects, play, and process the right place to go?

  • Internationally competitive student achievement: As Nancy Flanagan writes in a thoughtful post on this topic, process-based, interest-fueled work teaches students to think critically and perform independently in real-life situations. This level of rigor will position American students to compete successfully with other countries in the 21st century, not just pass our own, lower-level tests.
  • Student buy-in: Done right, inquiry and interest-based projects are ways all students can and want to learn. When we cram one definition of knowledge down the throats of students from every background in America, no matter how clever we are with our in-class marketing, some kids don't buy it. Kids who don't buy in tend to drop out or get kicked out.
  • Teacher retention: This is a more challenging, exciting way for students to study and for teachers to teach. In my third year of teaching, I already feel pretty good at -- and bored with -- the components of direct instruction in my day. What keeps me excited as a professional is the knowledge that there are more difficult, but ultimately more successful, ways to teach my students. The further I dip my toe in the waters of project-based learning, the deeper I want to swim -- and the longer I realize I'll have to stay in the water. What I naively assumed to be a swimming pool has become an ocean. And that keeps me, and many other teachers I know, coming back for more.

Second, and probably stickier -- how do we get there?

The short answer is, I don't know. As I said, I'm just learning to swim these deeper waters. But, there are people who do know. So, with the full knowledge of my novice-ness, here are a few first attempts at answers:

  • Study and utilize teachers who are experts in these approaches. As Flanagan and Willingham attest to, they are out there! So let's make them teacher leaders on a national scale and help other teachers learn what they know.
  • Share tools for increasing efficiency and rigor in these approaches. Although every interest-connected classroom will look different, there are certain tools and processes that most teachers can use over and over. See, for example, the "Evaluation Checklist for PBL Units" by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach on this Project-Based Learning Wiki. (Thanks to bjnicols for sharing this on Twitter.)
  • Up the rigor of teacher development. No matter how good the tools, teachers need to be good at this -- and it's hard to do right. As Willingham notes, the twin principles of "authenticity" and "student choice" in these kinds of learning make a teacher's job much harder.
  • Recognize that *interest* and *content* can drive each other. As Flanagan notes, "well-done inquiry learning is centered on, reinforces and integrates the acquisition of useful knowledge." I stand by the claim that my kindergartners will never REALLY learn about weather when I announce, "Ok kids, it's time to learn about weather" and roll out a mass produced, pre-planned unit -- but will when I watch their interests, and give them the structured space to conduct informed inquiries. When kids are bursting with enthusiasm over last night's foot of snow or today's first flowers poking out of the beds we planted, they are excited about weather, whether they know it or not. And when I tell them they need to state and write clear questions before we go explore the garden (processes which I choose because of their alignment with state standards and more mature cognitive development,) they will do it, and do it well, because they are so interested in those flowers. We need to get better at harnessing student's interests to help them learn carefully prioritized content.
None of these steps are easy, or cheap. So why bother? For my answer, let's return to Aaliyah and the dance studio. Here's what happened after she labeled the costumes: For a few days, children played in the studio and added a little more writing to the studio's "walls." I made the dance books accessible during their play, and tried to help them choreograph and write down dances. But soon, the project fizzled out. Not for lack of student interest -- they still love to dance, and still do it often. The project failed because of my own knowledge gaps. Because I didn't know how to plan with the right balance of flexibility and rigor, the activities I encouraged were either too teacher-directed or too open-ended to be meaningful. And because I didn't feel confident recording, assessing, and utilizing students' activities in an efficient way, I quickly reverted to the pre-planned activities I KNEW would cover all the standards by the end of the year. I feel sad for the opportunities my students and I continue to miss because of my own lack of proficiency.

We know using projects, play, and process to achieve rigor is the infinitely rockier path. But the smoother, more predictable road of narrowly defined, direct instruction will not take us where we ultimately want to go. From Nancy Flanagan:
But--as with many things in life, just because these models are tough to do well
doesn't mean we should never encourage discovery, inquiry or project-based
learning. After all, lots of direct instruction (teacher explains/kids
listen/tests measure recall) doesn't stick to student brains, after the
all-important quiz. Genuine content mastery depends on use--the things we're
good at, and understand deeply as adults, comes from "content" we've applied and
practiced, in a variety of ways.
It's a hard road, but, in the end, it's the right one for learning, teachers, and Aaliyah.

1 comment:

Nancy Flanagan said...

I really like your four-part framework for increasing the applied uses of content knowledge. Most of what I know about project-based learning came from trying things in my own classroom-- sometimes successfully, other times not so much. I certainly didn't learn how to do it well in ed school--where professors are often loathe to give up the stage.

And sometimes, of course, direct instruction is the way to go. The most important tool in any teacher's bag is reflective judgment.

Great blog, BTW. I'll be back.