TT #27 – The Power of an Idea that “Ought to Work” – Project Based Learning

One of the most interesting, and yet frustrating, aspects of life as a traditionalist teacher is watching the progressives attempt to justify ideas that “ought to work” but often do not.

An excellent example came across Traditionalist Teacher’s desk this morning.  The article is called Project-Based Learning: ‘Promising but not Proven,’ Researchers Say.  It comes from THE Journal[1], which asserts itself as being in favor of “Transforming Education Through Technology.”[2]

As anyone who has read this blog would know, Traditionalist Teacher is highly skeptical of anyone who asserts the ability to transform education.  However, to many this is the siren song that they find irresistible.

The article’s author, Dian Schaffhauser,[3] asks an important question, “Does a focus on exploring real-world problems and challenges help students learn more effectively?”

In an attempt to create a process by which those ‘real-world problems and challenges’ could be explored, project based learning (PBL) was devised.

The article goes on to point out some important steps that should be taken to increase the potential success of the strategy.

  • First, lock down the design principles. They need to be measurable, address both content and assessment and be informed by practice. Researchers should also study adaptation of the design principles, taken to fit the local school setting.
  • Second, pay more attention to implementation — how the rollout of PBL is “affected by the broader school context,” how different approaches to professional development affect PBL, how teacher belief influences use of PBL and how the use of technology addresses teacher challenges in the classroom. The report suggested that researchers pay more attention to “teacher-initiated PBL” as well, because that’s the most common way students get exposure to it.
  • Third, a “top priority” for PBL research should be to structure PBL design principles that can be used in different settings, such as different grade levels, student populations and subject areas.

According to the article, the jury is still out.  That is very curious because PBL has a very long history.  It is hard to pinpoint just how long that history is, because the names of ideas in the educational world change on a regular basis – even though the underlying ideas remain largely unaltered.  So, to illustrate, Traditionalist Teacher decided to record the development of PBL through personal experience.

As a student, about 1967, Traditionalist Teacher’s own sixth-grade teacher decided to experiment with it.  The class was studying Scandinavia, so the teacher divided the class into four groups.  There were four bulletin boards in the classroom, so each group was assigned one.  One group did Finland, another did Norway, a third did Denmark, and TT’s group did Sweden – which delighted TT, because TT’s great grandparents had emigrated from Sweden in the 1880s.

The groups had an hour a day for a week to research its country and prepare its bulletin board.  On Monday of the following week, each group did a presentation for the class based on its bulletin board.

It was not a disaster.  Most of the bulletin boards looked pretty good.  We were well-behaved enough to sit quietly and listen to each group’s presentation.  On the other hand, when we did the next unit, our teacher went back to his previous methods and the experiment was not repeated.

By the time that Traditionalist Teacher was in charge of a classroom, the methodology of PBL was far more developed.  In the file cabinets that sit behind TT as this is being written is a series of files containing something called “The Brookville Project”.  That experience is briefly described on page 124 of TT’s book Can America’s Schools be Saved – How the Ideology of American Education is Destroying It.  The project was carefully designed to enable the students to use a series of period images to learn about everyday life in the United States before the turn of the twentieth century.  Each image was supplemented with a series of open ended questions.  Then there was a group component in which the students were to collaborate to compile their impressions.  After that, each students was to complete an individual component in which each student was to elaborate on one of those impressions.

Traditionalist Teacher’s belief in the methodology at the time could be witnessed to by the amount of time that it took to develop the project.  During development it was hoped that it would be good enough to be published.  At the time, the majority of TT’s teaching load was Honors American History, so that – in the time-honored process known as “action research” – would be the test group.

The day came to begin.  Traditionalist Teacher used the latest thing in classroom technology – it was 1987 – an overhead projector to display one of the images in the project.  We worked through the questions connected with that image as a whole group.  The students’ responses were encouraging, so TT divided the students into groups (the jargon for these at the time was Collaborative Learning Groups), told the students to assign roles for the individual members, and informed them that they would have three days to complete the task.  At the beginning of the second class period, the goals and process that the students were to follow were reviewed, and the students were turned loose.  At the beginning of day three, TT explained the individual component of the project, and again gave the students the period to complete their work.

It all seemed to go well.  There was lots of conversation within the groups, and most of it seemed to be about the project.  When day three ended, Traditionalist Teacher was eager to see what the students had produced in their virtual trips to Western Pennsylvania in 1878 – the date when the book containing the images was first published.

Unfortunately, the written responses were superficial at best.  These were intelligent students, and should have been easily capable of deducing the information from the images.  Yet, it was obvious that very little thought had actually gone into the responses.  The disappointment was palpable.

However, there is always room for improvement, after all, the process had adherents throughout the educational community.  The questions were revised for 1988, in an attempt to make them simultaneously more open ended and yet more directive.  Yes, this was a contradiction in terms, but the young Traditionalist Teacher believed that there was too much good in the process and in the work that TT had done to implement the process to give up after only one try.  Again, the responses were disappointingly superficial.

TT gave it one last try for 1989, but by then the heart was no longer in it.  Again, the response was lukewarm.  At that point, the project went into the file folders in which it remains.

So where, according to Ms. Schaffhauser’s criteria, had Traditionalist Teacher gone wrong?  It was designed with great care.  The responses were measurable.  A rubric had been included in the project to inform the students of the way in which their work would be evaluated.  It had been carefully and enthusiastically implemented by a teacher who believed in the process and in the importance of the information being conveyed.  Underlying the whole project was the belief that its visual nature would make it accessible to less successful students than those in my honors American History class, although an easier set of questions might have to be devised.

For Traditionalist Teacher, the last nail was driven into PBL years later, on the first parents’ night at TT’s current school.  In a room full of parents of freshman students, several parents inquired about projects.  It seems that the middle school which those students had recently left had fully embraced PBL, especially in Social Studies.  TT explained that there would be no projects, and the parents breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Somewhat puzzled, TT asked a colleague whose own children had attended that middle school about the conversation.  Basically, the response was that the parents were tired of having to do the projects themselves and then having to make special arrangements to transport the completed projects to school without breaking them.

So, why then does PBL still have adherents?  As far as Traditionalist Teacher can see, the only answer is that it ought to work.  It has all of the earmarks of the way that John Dewey said that effective classroom instruction should be done.  It is collaborative.  It is learning by doing.  It involves higher order thinking.

So many want it to work so badly.  They keep trying to tweak it so that PBL will deliver on its promise.

To those of us in the fraternity of traditionalist teachers, the message is clear.  The progressives have been trying to massage this concept into workable form for over fifty years, and have not yet accomplished it.  It is time to admit that, while PBL ought to work, it just doesn’t.

Let’s not waste any more student or teacher time on this clunker of an idea.

[1] According to THE Journal’s website, “THE Journal is dedicated to informing and educating K-12 senior-level district and school administrators, technologists, and tech-savvy educators within districts, schools, and classrooms to improve and advance the learning process through the use of technology. Launched in 1972, THE Journal was the first magazine to cover education technology.”

[2] https://thejournal.com/articles/2017/11/08/project-based-learning-promising-but-not-proven.aspx?admgarea=News1

[3] According to the note at the end of the article, “Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media’s education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology.”

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