Thursday, September 3, 2009

Project-based learning at the "school of the future"

My local school district is considering abandoning a traditional curriculum and moving to a curriculum centered around "questions and problems." I'm not yet sure what that means, but it sounds like what I've heard called "constructivism" or "project-based learning." So I've started reading a bit about these philosophies, which strike me at first glance as bad ideas.

While searching, I came across an article (free registration required) discussing the failure of the "school of the future" in Philadelphia. Among other concerns, here's what one educational policy expert says about project-based learning at the school:
There is no clear definition of what project-based learning exactly is and how that can be step-by-step implemented in the classroom. Student remediation also didn't fit with the project-based collaboration model.
This is what I'm wary of. Students are to be learning by doing projects -- building robots, solving global warming, etc. But our kids are lacking the fundamentals. They can't read and write or do basic math. They can't tell you who the first president was or what ocean is off the east coast. How are these holes going to get filled in if they don't come up in the project at hand?

Regarding the overall vision for the school, the article says:

Microsoft's expertise was based on what the company calls the 6 "I"s: introspection, investigation, inclusion, innovation, implementation, and--again--introspection. It was up to the Curriculum Planning Committee to design the underlying principles and goals for the school, based on this framework.

However, these principles too often seemed unclear.

"Working within this framework often felt more like an academic exercise than a productive process," said Biros. "Descriptions posted on the Microsoft web site were impressive, but too often seemed vague and general. I often wondered as the group met and discussed when we would get down to the details and specifics."

Unfortunately, this sounds an awful lot like the criticisms I have of what I'm reading in the local paper about the new "vision." And, coincidentally, Microsoft may have a hand in the project here as well, as Bill Gates' foundation is being talked about as a potential benefactor.

An alternative method of student assessment is also being considered and, once again, the plan sounds similar to what was tried at the "school of the future." And some of the concerns I have about the new assessment method have indeed been a problem in Philadelphia.

According to Biros, the creation of assessments was problematic.

"We all agreed that students should be evaluated qualitatively, without customary grades and standardized tests, but we did not consider how colleges would use these assessments to determine students' acceptance into their programs," she explained. She later added: "These initiatives need to be protected and supported. To be left to its own devices was short-sighted. It should not have been left to the district alone."

It sounds like there were a ton of problems at the Philly school, most of them related to poor planning, so I'm trying to keep an open mind that these ideas can work if they are done right. But a traditional school can also work if it's done right. It's just that competence isn't always a given in pubic education.

I'd like to see some hard evidence that these ideas have produced measurable results somewhere. Until then, color me skeptical, and worried.

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