Project-Based Learning, part two

Last week in this space I recommended studying one of life’s essentials, the water we drink.  I also endorsed project-based learning because it demands that students become producers of knowledge, not mere regurgitators of canned information.  

A number of readers asked for more, and so here’s a second recommendation: let’s study the air that we breath every minute of every hour of every day.  This particular project is also a good example of how technology can support genuine learning.

For this project, an elementary school needs a portable air quality indicator, one of which costs about $250.  Suppose that three or four times each school day students carry their monitor outside, turn it on, and record the measurements–which would be automatically entered into an accessible data base. Back in class, they could compare the daily and hourly readings for their playground and look for changes.  They would need to know how to interpret readings, which would require some basic science research and direct instruction from their teacher.  Perhaps they would ask local scientists to come in and talk and also Skype with experts from all over the globe. 

They’d be studying the science of air quality and learning about the specifics of air pollution, the causes and consequences of asthma, et cetera, et cetera.  Perhaps they’ll become curious about the incidence of asthma and other lung-related conditions in their town or state and begin trying to plot and graph air quality against lung-related conditions.  

Everything they learn will also produce more questions, more avenues to explore, and, for teachers, nothing is more satisfying.

As for students, this is genuine knowledge that they are going to ‘own,’ and nothing in school is more satisfying than that.

Because students will be aware that they are producing useful knowledge, teachers won’t be confronted by those awful complaint/questions, “How is this relevant?” or “Why should I care?

Now suppose that every elementary school in the area has its own portable air quality indicator!  That means that hundreds of students will be engaged in this project, comparing readings.  Perhaps elementary students in other towns or states (or countries!) would also be participating, and that would allow even broader comparisons.

On one level, this project would break new ground, because as CityLab noted,  “Measuring air quality has been the purview of state environmental regulators, who rely on monitors approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that cost tens of thousands of dollars. That data is used to send out bad-air alerts (the green, orange, and red warning days) and for regulatory purposes.”

Because educators are notorious for being reactive, not aggressive, it’s also important to note that lots of ordinary citizens have become engaged in the study of the air we breath.  That is, this project isn’t radical, and it won’t cost educators their jobs, if they make connections with interested groups. For example,  The Central California Environmental Justice Network has several projects monitoring air quality.  By putting monitors in backyards and around schools (in the San Joaquin Valley), the group is hoping to see what the area’s biomass plants and the dozens of trucks that rumble through are pumping into the lungs of disadvantaged residents.”

It’s also happening in Grand Junction, Colorado, where a group that calls itself “Citizens for Clean Air”has ordered 25 air monitoring devices.

“We wanted to know where pollution was coming from, what was the cause and what were the levels,” said Win.  The monitors will measure things like exhaust emissions and dirt, heavier and larger particulates.  “They shoot the laser beam through the air that’s flowing from the outside, and it counts the particles as they go through,” said Gerald Nelson with Citizens for Clean Air. They’ve placed the monitors around the Grand Valley in order to get a comprehensive count of particulates. Some are in higher elevations or lower spots, and they stretch from Mack to Whitewater, Grand Junction and Palisade.”

Let’s go back to the kids for a minute.  As they began to understand–and perhaps be outraged by–anomalies, they might feel compelled to write letters or articles for local publications.  Perhaps some would create video reports that could be posted on YouTube…and maybe even picked up by local television news.  

This “curriculum” is about more than air.  It’s also about democracy, independence, collaboration, and knowledge creation.  Projects like these teach more than science, effective writing, and public speaking.  Students will learn that information is power, that collaboration produces strength, and that social policies have consequences. Students will learn that they themselves are not merely numbers or test scores but sentient, thinking individuals with potential.  That they matter.

Technology, used imaginatively, makes it possible for students to develop the habit of  asking questions and searching for answers.  

And technology means our schools and educators can ask of each child, ‘How is he or she intelligent?’–and then create learning opportunities that allow every child to soar.  Technology allows students to have more control over their own learning, without downgrading or minimizing the role of the skilled teacher.

Schools today must provide opportunities for young people to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them 24/7.  You and I were sent to schools because that’s where the knowledge was stored–but that was yesterday. Think how different today’s world is. Today’s young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. They need to be able to formulate good questions–because computers have all the answers.

When schools do these things, young people will be learning (or reinforcing) real-world skills that will help them once they move out of school. They’re working together, they are gathering, assimilating and analyzing data, they are learning how to present what they are learning, and so on. They will be working with numbers and writing persuasive reports. No doubt some will be speaking publicly about their findings. This is career-track stuff, 180 degrees different from the ‘regurgitation education’ that is the hallmark of most education today.

And finally, this is a zero-sum game: The hours students spend on projects like these are hours they cannot spend staring at their phones, consuming technology. 

8 thoughts on “Project-Based Learning, part two

  1. John,
    It’s disappointing to see you disparaging the teaching of factual information: “I also endorsed project-based learning because it demands that students become producers of knowledge, not mere regurgitators of canned information.” That sounds too much like dismissal of objective knowledge, the shared human knowledge that makes this and any communication possible.
    Perhaps you are criticizing requiring students to learn inaccurate or biased information or mere opinions as facts; if so, please say so.
    Or maybe you’re really criticizing misuse of standardized tests with no consequences for students, but used to hold schools, i.e. their teachers, “accountable” for student performance to justify firing teachers and closing schools or transferring them to charters. If so, you should make that clear.
    Maybe you’re criticizing students getting information from online searches and social media sources. Or maybe you’re thinking of teachers handing out work sheets. Or even teachers unprepared to teach the content subjects they’re required to teach.

    But it really sounds like a blanket dismissal of instruction by competent teachers of subject information, i.e. facts in context, and promoting in its place performance-based, project-based, discovery, inquiry, student-produced learning, etc. as the only genuine learning. They sound good but lack evidence of effectiveness in comparison to teacher directed instruction, which you actually acknowledge in passing.

    The projects you describe (water quality, air quality, etc.) are fine as projects after students have basic knowledge with which to study them and the teacher has done dry runs to make sure the project will illuminate the teacher’s or district’s learning goals. In your water-quality example, you write that, after students had taken their water samples, “[Students] would need to know how to interpret readings, which would require some basic science research and direct instruction from their teacher.”

    “Basic science research” may sound “basic” or simple, but even at a “basic” level it requires a number of steps, which, as you write, require direct instruction – of facts and procedures – by “their teacher.” How will the teacher know that each student knows the facts and procedures of “Basic science research” before attempting to apply it to a water or air study? Probably by a written test developed by the teacher or the district. Since “Basic science research” consists of an objective set of steps, an objective test would be an efficient measure of students’ mastery and of the teacher’s time.

    And you don’t dismiss this learning as “regurgitating canned information.” Now that’s interesting.

    And, by the way, this is also part of the overall goal of developing students’ mastery of our written language in all subject areas,.

    Erich
    Erich Martel
    Retired DCPS h.s. history teacher
    Here is one source on the AFT website
    “Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction” by Kirschner, Sweller, Clark: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Clark.pdf

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  2. Dear John Merrow,
    In addition to supporting Erich Martel’s comments, I would appreciate your letting us know what school/grades you have seen kids’ knowledge of a major subject in the school curriculum increase by such project-based initiatives. Were they able to transfer knowledge or skills they had acquired from such a group project to other projects? I share your concern about “regurgitation” education, but years ago I read up on studies of “PBL” and noted the kinds of comments teachers had made. Unless math and foreign language lessons could be sequenced and taught in a series of planned lessons, kids did not learn much math or the targeted FL. We were discussing “expeditionary” learning/teaching. The review I read came out in 2000 and covered all studies the author could locate up to that date.

    As a separate criticism, at about the same time, a high school math teacher I knew well tried to make every grade 10 Geometry lesson she was teaching relevant to “daily life.” She gave up after a few weeks. I don’t know if she was having students work out proofs or not.

    Sandra Stotsky

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  3. sstotsky
    February 6, 2020 at 7:10 pm
    Dear John Merrow,
    In addition to supporting Erich Martel’s comments, I would appreciate your letting us know what school/grades you have seen kids’ knowledge of a major subject in the school curriculum increase by such project-based initiatives. Were they able to transfer knowledge or skills they had acquired from such a group project to other projects? I share your concern about “regurgitation” education, but years ago I read up on studies of “PBL” and noted the kinds of comments teachers had made. Unless math and foreign language lessons could be sequenced and taught in a series of planned lessons, kids did not learn much math or the targeted FL. We were discussing “expeditionary” learning/teaching. The review I read came out in 2000 and covered all studies the author could locate up to that date.
    As a separate criticism, at about the same time, a high school math teacher I knew well tried to make every grade 10 Geometry lesson she was teaching relevant to “daily life.” She gave up after a few weeks. I don’t know if she was having students work out proofs or not.
    Sandra Stotsky

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  4. Erich, thanks for your thoughtful essay regarding the importance of the acquisition of knowledge. I see that I should have been clearer regarding factual knowledge: IT MATTERS! What I oppose is the pedagogy of spoon-feeding and regurgitation, as if students were empty vessels into which knowledge and information can simply be poured. Think of that awful cartoon image in Davis Guggenheim’s propaganda film “Waiting for ‘Superman'”, where students proceed along an assembly line, their heads popping open to receive stuff. That approach may work well enough for students to pass tests, but the subsequent forgetting curve is steep. That approach, which I detest, may hit the target (higher scores), but it misses the point entirely.
    Re evidence of the impact of project-based learning and learning in groups, ask just about anyone where and when they learned the most. While i know the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data,’ I am not willing to dismiss what I have seen and heard as a reporter for 41 years, as a parent for 51 years, and as a learner for (I hope) even longer: When people DO, they learn. When people need to know or believe they need to know, they learn. When they are challenged and when they understand that the knowledge being offered to them will be useful, they learn.
    The above does not rule out lecturing, of course, and I think direct transmission of information works and should be part of every pedagogy. It should not be, IMO, the major means of teaching.
    The bottom line is “What’s the most effective way to transmit useful knowledge so that it sticks?” and “What’s the most effective pedagogy that results in increased curiosity about the subject at hand, and not merely acquisition of a specific body of information?”
    I know most of the state capitals because I was forced to memorize and regurgitate, but I had ZERO curiosity about why a particular state chose that particular city, even in my home state. That changed when–in my 60’s!!–I happened to learn that California had SIX previous capitals before finally settling on Sacramento. When we moved to New York, I wondered about Albany, the current capital, and learned that four other cities were once New York’s capital.
    Imagine a unit whose goal was understanding the state capitals and state government. Now, instead of memorizing, have small groups of children dig into a number of states to find out how, when, and why their capital cities were selected. What was at stake? How were decisions made?
    This can easily segue into research into national capital cities, also a fascinating subject. You may or may not know that the United States had EIGHT previous capitals. Third graders would have a field day with that, particularly when they learn that wherever the US Congress happened to be automatically became the nation’s capital…and that the Congress was on the move during the War of 1812. This is great stuff for children to DISCOVER. Would they retain it if their teacher assigned some reading and then lectured? As the lawyers say, ‘asked and answered.’
    So to sum up, I’m all for acquisition of knowledge. I happen to believe that lectures and reading assigned chapters are not the most effective means of acquisition, even if they are the easiest means of transmission..

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