This post will be about education. Yes, there will be a substantial amount of smarm and personal voice, but it will appeal mostly to those people who value the dialogue concerning the future of quality education, so not most of you in Serbia who apparently frequent my writings. So to you guys, Izvinite.
I was planning on writing this as a result of the deep thinking I did this morning in the shower and then, when I got to work, I sat through a long meeting which dealt with many of the same ideas. So this post will be a summary/review of that meeting, mixed with some of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of this will be a linear discussion, following the lines of logic, and some will be punctuated by single observations and questions which come out of no where but the dark recesses of my mind. For more on those dark recesses, see this video.
I have opined in the past on the use or misuse of technology in the classroom, and on the tension between skills acquisition and content knowledge dissemination via education -- I won't hotlink those. You can sift through my earlier blog posts and try to find what I have said. That way, I'll get more hits on a variety of pages. But I also wrote, a bunch of years ago, about assessment through gaming and second life type simulations. I was, and am, very excited about the application of scenario-based assessment. And yet, I can't embrace or fully get behind what I am seeing currently regarding the implementation of Project-based learning (henceforth, deliciously, PBL). I was wondering why not. I then, I found my center as an English teacher and realized that part of the problem is in the definitions, and part in the premises. So I wanted to quantify and clarify terms and conditions so I could, in a moderately public way, come to terms with what exactly I can endorse and what not.
First, the terms as I understand them. By understand, I mean "as I have made up definitions that I like."
Project-Based Learning is an approach to education (maybe) which stresses the creation of a summative "thing" as a demonstration of mastery. By itself and limited to assessment, it is not much more than the traditional end-of-unit project. However, in its current use, it is rarely invoked in this minimalist form. It is very often coupled with...
Self-Guided instruction -- this is an attempt to hand reins over to the student and let the student be a master of his educational direction. By giving this intellectual autonomy, we also bring up...
Passion Based Learning where we allow that the best education comes when a student is highly and personally invested in a topic and is pursuing education in a field which interests him or her. Allowing students to choose not just fields, but specific topics lets students find their academic bliss, and I don't mean potatoes. These approaches call forth...
Discovery learning or Inquiry Learning -- As umbrella terms, these push the notion that students need to have a driving question or need which will have them dive into the world of the world and develop ideas, explore issues and uncover truths. An implementation of this might be...
Problem-Based Learning where students are given (or can discover on their own) a situation or problem which needs to be addressed and they can, through their own investigation (guided or not, as will be discussed) come up with [an approach to, a critique of, a summary of] a solution. This allows for preparation for the real world and for relevant content which students can understand and care about.
Implementation of these ideas is often a mix-and-match in various combinations and percentages, based on the particular discipline, context and need.
My interest was in something I called Scenario-Based or Game-Based work. It places the student in a real or virtual situation and asks the student to negotiate that situation applying skills and facts learned. The beauty of this is that it is teacher generated and loaded with demands and skills applications, placed intentionally by teachers to ensure content relevance and grade level propriety, but the student does not know which skill has to be practiced or what content will be called forth -- that is part of the real-world aspect. It is very different from much of the above and those differences explain why I can't jump on board with PBL and the like.
The next set of clarifications get to the heart of the matter. Simply put, I don't see, for the mass of students, that the PBL's or the other concepts explained above are effective methods of LEARNING. And for that matter, they aren't effective modes of TEACHING. And this is a big thing to me. I view the use of application scenarios as a form of ASSESSMENT, not pedagogy. Asking a student to go and apply what he learns on his own might ask him to reinforce flawed information or practice unskills rather than skills. Give a kid a basketball and tell him to discover how to shoot on his own or by doing research, and then go play the game is asking the student to avoid external experts who have been shooting basketballs for years, and reinvent the wheel. Is it possible that he will come up with something no one has thought of -- a new holy grail of basketball shots? Maybe, just maybe. Odds are, he will develop a bad habit that will cripple his ability to play on a team or in a game situation, simply because in the vacuum of that project, his method works and he found it.
So then, some say, let's provide him with guidance along the way. That becomes a very fine line -- guiding him with baseline information and a gentle push when he is moving down the wrong path becomes the traditional indoctrination and limited direction before we know it. That balance between the institutionalized tradition and the unique, individual innovation is hard to achieve.
Here's the thing, one of many things, I hope. It isn't enough to say that pedagogy, like many things, isn't about the black or white dichotomy, but about shades of gray. I would posit that in education, there is no black or white. Only the shades of gray. No one method works for any student all the time. The human dynamic means that we have to shift gears moment by moment, abandoning what served us so well 5 minutes ago. New ideas and old ones overlap -- even reform can't divorce itself completely from the "way things are." Forgetting that any innovation and risk isn't just risking our jobs, but also the educational integrity of the next generation, we can't do anything other than built out of what we know, standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. It is sort of a determinist view, but it seems to me to be reality. There is nothing new under the sun, or even at night time when the sun has been swallowed by the evil dragon-god and only our prayers and supplications will effect its safe return on the morrow. Our newest ideas, even if they don't smack directly of something tried years ago, come either as a consequence of or as backlash to existing ideas. But we, as humans, can only build from what was there, or what we saw as a need because it wasn't there. We can't make an ex nihilo educational system so we shift subtly from one paradigm to the next because in truth, EACH ONE WORKS SOMETIMES.
So let's go back to the beginning, when life was simpler and ice cream flavors fit on the label and had, at most, one adjective. What is our goal, and how does each thing we do move us and our students closer to that goal? And, as an off shoot of that what is the goal of our method? I ask that because if we investigate goals, we will see major differences at work. The PBL approach (in certain applications...I know, asterisks abound and footnotes saying "not always" and "if you choose to do it this way" should be populating the end of this post, but they aren't) makes the goal the process of learning. Is the main object in a self-guided (or somewhat teacher guided) project the actual solution or the process of exploration, assimilation of fact and discovery of information? In scenario-based assessment, the goal is the application of facts and skills, often measured by the efficacy of the solution or the accuracy of the conclusions drawn. If we want to see a student demonstrate mastery, then we should have a way of defining that mastery. Is the mastery "being able to design a robot" or "choosing to explore the history of the fur trade in Quebec in the 18th century"? Is the point the destination or the journey? If we hand off much of the learning beyond the barest of background to the student then, not only will teachers have an existential crisis on their now idle hands, but there will be an academic void as the student ices the non-existent cake by working on advanced data/skills collection with no foundation or context. And the more we provide, the more the project aspect of PBL becomes simply the standard project in which we make a diorama of the Civil War or a model of the Solar System (from which I learned NOTHING, I might add).
Am I consigning projects and such simply to the realm of assessment, then? Is there no value to self-direction in terms of student learning? The thing is, I see PBL in the same way that I see technology. They are tools and only tools. I'll tell you a story and stop me if you have heard it. Well, you can't stop me so I'll continue. In graduate school, I developed the idea that teaching is about having a quiver, and each methodology and trick of the trade which i learned or observed became an arrow in that quiver [let's ignore the implicit violence and possible latent anti-student frustration in this metaphor]. On a given day, a skilled teacher has to try a bunch of different arrows and see which one works. None is the magic bullet, especially because they are arrows, and there is no such thing as magic (except for that chocolate syrup you pour on ice cream that then solidifies). They are potentially successful tools. But Each one is also a potential failure and that's the challenge. I can choose to use a Smart Board on a Tuesday and it might fail. I might choose to direct my students and let them have a few days of self-guided content and skills acquisition culminating in a non-traditional assessment, and that might work or it might not. The variables of student, time of year, topic, resources etc. make it tough to predict. It is my ability to assess and reassess the success of the approach day-to-day that will let me know if this is worth retooling or reusing.But the point is that the decision lies with the teacher who has to implement (in the same way that the success of a scenario based assessment lies with the teachers who infuse the situation with challenges which will demand performance and knowledge). Newer methods cannot obviate, nor should they wholly replace older forms of pedagogy because those tried and true methods tap into cognitive faculties and skills which are no less important or currently relevant. Deciding to let education BE something new before THINKING about education is a simple case of refusing to put Descartes before the horse. I have been waiting 25 years to work that phrase in.
At what age do we think a student is old enough and mature enough to be responsible for his own educational path? At what point is a student ready for ANY of these approaches or methodologies? Is a student at age 5 using an iPad in class gaining something from that experience that he couldn't have gained without the technology? Is his educational journey as well formed (or better formed) because of the introduction of a new method at a young age? Is he missing something or gaining more? No one actually knows. Do we know that there are ends which we can reach only through new forms of teaching because we see such a decided lack of something? In the "real" world, are things changing (I know I have discussed this before but I'm too lazy to reread my work and see where. Go do that. Find it, and I'll give you an "A")? Is this Change Gratis Change? And how can we ever know if any particular approach really "works" and what part one methodology played in ultimate student success or failure (I have moved from determinism to nihilism and boy are my arms tired)?
Maybe, to play the semantic game, I can find my niche when I decide that PBL is not about LEARNING (name aside) nor about TEACHING, and not even about ASSESSMENT, but about INSTRUCTION. Maybe that's the term which codifies the middle ground. Maybe we need a project at the end of senior year, after 3 months of directed study and three months of independent field work. Maybe we need a separate "PBL Track" in a school so those students who learn best that way can opt into that learning style. Remember, I don't see PBL et al as a curricular change at all, only a methodological one. There was some question at that meeting about how a teacher could change his curriculum because of PBL, but that is also a false dichotomy -- this is about HOW the information which we think of as valuable is distributed. If the method incurs logistical nightmares which require us to reevaluate which information or how much we will cover, then so be it, but the point is that PBL won't drive curricular change, only allow any change to be administered in an effective way. Maybe, any and every class can have a PBL component, either as a summative assessment after a unit or the year, or as an instructional method when the curriculum allows for students exploring ideas individually, under close guidance. And maybe the size and scope of the iterations will vary wildly and widely because each subject and class requires something different. Maybe we should stop trying to find the solution and direction of reform and recognize that in some ways we are already there and in some, the goal of change is a foolish one anyway.
My cynicism is not about being anti-change. I am not down on PBL, inquiry learning and the rest simply because I am happy being a dinosaur (though it does have its advantages). I don't like extremism and it seems that when the pendulum swings, it swings exceeding hard. The rush towards technology and alternate forms of instruction is a dangerous, and often out of control pendulum. I am not advocating baby steps, but measured risks and reasonable changes which can build on each other, and I think that, to some degree, we are already moving in that direction. Can we do more? Sure, as long as we know what our goal is at each mile marker and don't lose ourselves in the pursuit of means over ends.