Wednesday, January 13, 2016

I Fear For The Future - And I'm Not Alone


Just recently, a topic of discussion on a national list-serve of which I'm a member, turned to "project-based learning". I HATE PBL, which is essentially a way for the type 'A' personalities to show their stuff and the laziest students to hide behind their work. 

Project-Based Learning (PBL) has a very long history that goes all the way back to John Dewey - a Marxist Progressive Constructivist - who believed that children learn best by 'doing'. He developed this idea back on his rural Vermont farm watching kids do their chores (I often wonder if he was in fact simply observing because he wasn't interested in 'doing' himself...).


Essentially, PBL is touted as a way to make school 'exciting' for students (among many other career-type reasons such as learning to work together as a team). Mere discussion is boring and taking notes is simply dreadful and promotes individuality, not groupthink. What child should be confined to a chair and forced to take notes from a Power Point - or even...GASP...a chalkboard when they could be discussing the topic with others? PBL allows students to see education as an adventure and every single website devoted to PBL shows pictures of freshly scrubbed children with bright faces and wide smiles building something as fantastical as a flying car to illustrate the point.

Guess what? Some topics are good for PBL, lots are not. Some ages/grades are better suited to PBL, most are not. In general, younger kids can get a lot from PBL whereas older students can tend to use PBL as an excuse to do as little work as possible.

"Oh that's simply not true! You're not informed enough on PBL", I will hear proponents complain, yet I'm using my own classroom experience upon which to base my opinions.

I have taught from the college level down through middle school. At each level, I undertook some form of PBL. My college kids were mainly pre-med and I was teaching microbiology at the time, so any of the projects (labs) they did they were highly motivated to complete and excel in because med school demanded that rigor. My high school kids were a different story. In Zoology, I had my 11-12th graders dissect a fetal pig for their last assignment of the year.  I had 3 kids to a pig for probably obvious reasons. There was never a class - and hardly ever a group - where there were NOT complaints of so-and-so not doing their fair share and the other two (or one) having to do all the work. Fortunately, this was sorted out at the final exam, because that made up the majority of their grade and if the student couldn't name the major (and a few minor) structures, their grade suffered greatly.

In middle school I created a game called, "Science Survivor". I actually wrote the structure up for Science Scope magazine in 2002. Essentially, the kids competed in a game similar to Survivor where an assignment was given and the team had to complete the assignment with the best grade to win. Those who didn't complete the work got voted off the 'island' and became ineligible for the pizza lunch I provided at the end of the project. This worked really well for a couple of projects until the newness wore off and it wasn't 'fun' to do the work anymore.

The sad thing is that education is actually creating a historical record of disachievement with progressive teaching styles such as PBL, meant to keep students 'engaged' - making learning entertainment. Any education that promotes group over individuality necessarily creates a learning environment where accountability suffers because groups of individuals aren't tested - groups of individuals don't have to learn skills that will create responsible adults - individuals do. This is obvious when you look at what's happening on college campuses with the selfie generation wrought from the delicate way they've been treated by education through the years, skating by with little to show for their elevated self-esteem but some average English and Math grades and some awesome Social Studies and Science projects for which their parents put in most of the effort.

It was interesting to see this comment about PBL from this teacher on my email loop because it contained very specific observations indicating her disdain. So interesting were these comments - and so self-explanatory - I vowed to post them in a blog so that they could be seen by anyone interested:
I have taught physics for many years at the college level, and did private tutoring for college and high schools students.

Among the problems I observed:

1. These kids lack the social and psychological maturity
    to handle the freedom and independence of discovery,
    collaborative group learning.

2. So, the one student who is more mature than the rest
    ends up doing all the work, while the rest just sponge off
    and get credit.

3. Even that one bright kid cannot “discover” what it took
    many people their entire careers to formulate.  I am not
    exaggerating when I say, I have seen students asked to
    to “discover” calculus based electromagnetism by “exploring
    the wonderland of physics.”

4. Project based group learning often consumes far too much
    time on the physical construction of the projects, and not
    on the concepts the project is supposed to teach.

5. The teacher’s grading is very subjective, and often rewards
    students for the fact they were “collaborating,” and “learn-
    ing to work together,” and not for what they actually know
    about physics.
So, there you have it. Take it or leave it, believe it or not, but truth is truth. Individual learning is best the majority of the time and individual accountability a necessity for high functioning, well-educated students.