Monday, November 20, 2006

Project learning gone kafluey

Yesterday our 8th grader cooked our family dinner as part of her health class homework. She planned the menu, shopped, prepared, served and cleaned up. Woo-hoo! Then she had to write about the experience -- using specific content knowledge. It wasn't all touchy-feelie reflecting. Woo-hoo number two! Now there's a school project I can embrace with open arms (and widening belt).

But what happens when school projects go kafluey? As parents, we've probably all seen our fair share of mobiles, dioramas, and other "make happy" work come home. But what pushes parents over the edge? Ken DeRosa at D-Ed Reckoning shares one mom's plea to educators: "Don't Make Me Do School Projects!" (from the Christian Science Monitor).

"Recently, while rummaging through my son's 20-pound backpack, I found a note from the literature teacher: "Class, please sew together a stuffed animal representing a character from the Dr. Dolittle novel we read in class. It doesn't have to be elaborate, simply use any old scraps you have around the house. And, please, whatever you do, DON'T INVOLVE YOUR PARENTS!"

Oh yeah, sure. They always say that. Who, may I ask, is going to drive to the fabric store and run the sewing machine? Who will buy the stuffing, find buttons for the eyes, and sew on the cute whiskers? Certainly not the 9-year-old boy who is busy playing a Star Wars game on the computer.

But wait, it gets worse. Beware the dreaded "group project." Three or four kids clad in old Halloween costumes might reenact the battle of Agincourt for a home video. Or if your child is studying ancient civilizations, you might need to throw together a few Babylonian ziggurats for a backdrop."

The Instructivist digs deeper into the situation to find the educational theories that drive projects in the class. It's a good, thoughtful read.

At the end of the day, I don't mind projects that build understanding of an idea or concept taught in class. Occassionally I've seen students use a project to connect complicated ideas or get hands-on experience with something that isn't so clear when taught as a theory (like the meal project). And reading the pleading mom's "9-year-old boy who is busy playing a Star Wars game on the computer" made me cringe. Yikes.

But I think all educators should question project assignments rigorously before sending them home:
  • How will the project enhance the students' understanding and learning?
  • Can you realistically expect students to complete the project with minimal parental input?
  • Are families likely to have the materials at home?
  • Is the educational value worth the effort -- or is it just a crayola curriculum experience?


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