This week I responded to a comment on Twitter written by a certain Dr Jeff Goldstein who claims that:
“In education, PBL should be as natural as PBJ. We need transdisciplinary learning opportunities that mirror the real world.”
Now, on Wednesday, I had no idea what PBJ was, but I knew full well what PBL was, and so I replied “No it shouldn’t. It doesn’t work.” I later found out that PBJ stands for “Peanut Butter and Jelly”, which I gather must be a common part of children’s lunches in the US (not sure on the nutritional value there).
@doctorjeff is clearly a bit confused about Problem/Project Based Learning and its merits. He seems to be advocating its use across all age groups regardless of students’ prior knowledge or attainment. This is clearly misguided and irresponsible – anybody who takes part in a project (if it is to be successful and effective) needs to be an expert in the field in which the project is taking place. I don’t suppose the NASA recruitment team hire people to work on a project with a background in joinery – it would clearly be a waste of time.
Anyway, the good doctor then pointed out that he was talking from experience and that my data was limited. He kindly gave me a link to an American website that runs a competition offering a team of students the chance to have their own scientific experiment sent into space. It looks amazing. This is the link: www.ssep.ncesse.org.
He pointed out that this programme has “amazing impact” and that my “data is limited.” I found this a little presumptuous, but gently pointed him towards the latest PISA findings, not bothering to point out that I’ve been a teacher for 13 years and in that time I’ve seen countless lessons and courses that use the project model and where the students, lacking the suitable knowledge and expertise, just waste time trying to “discover” something that they could have been much more efficiently taught. I pointed out that projects are great for getting things done by teams of experts with a common focus and goal, but that as a model for teaching it doesn’t work because novices need to be actually taught a subject if they aren’t going to waste a lot of time fumbling around in the dark. In his last reply @doctorjeff declared “well you stick to your view and I’ll engage 100,000 nationally in the real space program. My data is also real.” I don’t think I’d suggested his data wasn’t real, but there you go; maybe I’d hit a nerve.
My final tweet (up to now) said “ouch. Presumably the 100K have an excellent working knowledge of the subject before you unleash them on any kind of project.” I knew this had to be true as the group whose proposal was chosen to be the lucky ones who had their project sent into space would have access to goodness only knows how much money’s worth of equipment and expert guidance. Clearly this kind of money wasn’t going to be squandered on a group of 12 year olds with no grasp of the noble scientific discipline. Sure enough, on the website it states:
“SSEP provides seamless integration across STEM disciplines through an authentic, high visibility research experience that correctly places content within a process landscape – an approach that embraces the Next Generation Science Standards, but also requires –
- a critical understanding of the space technology, and associated spaceflight operations, used to transport payload to and from Low Earth Orbit and conduct microgravity experiments on ISS,
- a critical understanding of the engineering specifications for the mini-laboratory, which provide real-world constraints on experiment design,
- mathematics to design a viable experiment to operate in the mini-laboratory, through: refinement of sample (fluid and solid) concentrations and volumes, defining a timeline that is consistent with the experiment’s duration aboard ISS, and defining an approach to data analysis after the experiment returns to Earth
In addition, student teams are writing real proposals that then go through a formal review process. This addresses vital skills in terms of historical research, critical writing and communications, and teamwork.”
So there we have it: in order to qualify for this programme you need to be among the best and brightest of young people who’ve been thoroughly taught in some demanding and difficult disciplines requiring a lot of committed hours of study and – I expect – plenty of teacher-led direct instruction.
I’m not really sure who @drjeff is or what his experience of education is outside of providing real-world, hi-tech simulations for bright and knowledgeable young Americans, but it’s a little disconcerting that he thinks project-based learning is some kind of panacea that will magically produce the next generation’s pioneers; even he must realise that there’s an awful lot of pre-teaching and studying to be carried oout before students get to this stage. I dearly hope his 42K followers don’t take him literally at his word, especially the teachers among them.
Appendix: Some more weird and worrying tweets from Dr Jeff:
“The goal of education should not be to create a generation of content sponges, then force them to prove they soaked up all the water”. (Surely the water is what allows them to have a fertile and productive mind?)
“What needs to be the core objective of 21st century #education? Students capable of critical thinking on demand.” (Surely that’s always been the goal of high quality education? It’s not the domain of the 21st Century. I’m getting flashbacks to that ridiculous“Shift Happens” video that kept being shown in staff training a few years ago.
“exploration and inquiry should be the driver for learning and acquisition of knowledge, not knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” Oh lordy.
“It’s the student’s classroom, and the teacher lights the way” The mind boggles.
This week we started the new term’s cycle of T+L workshops. One of the workshops on offer was entitled “Engagement Without Gimmicks”. This was delivered by a very experienced colleague in the English Department who has a track record of great results and who, like me, endured the years of mind-boggling obsession with child-centred, experiential, discovery-based teaching that had such a negative impact on behaviour and results in schools across the UK.
My colleague opened the workshop by sharing a Guardian “Secret Teacher” column that she said had really angered her (I had to stop reading the column years ago as I find the needy, whiny, navel-gazing tone nauseating). In the column a science teacher wrote about how as a young teacher she spent hours creating resources to help her students learn in fun and “hands-on” ways and that she loved doing this, despite her husband’s pleas for her to spend some time with him. Later, when she had children, she found that she couldn’t maintain this pace and began to feel like a failure because her students had come to expect these kinds of activities and she just couldn’t keep pace anymore. Even though she realised that it was far more efficient and expedient to just show a diagram of a brain and explain its workings to the class, she felt like she should be providing the resources that would allow her students to build their own brains from jelly and moulds.
The teacher running the workshop then told an anecdote about how a colleague, when Ofsted were visiting, brought in a sandpit, some sand, shells and containers of water to help her teach descriptive writing based around a visit to the beach. The inspector deemed the lesson to be outstanding. But was it really any better than just discussing the experience, maybe with the aid of an image and an excellent example from a great writer? And could anyone realistically provide these kinds of props for every lesson? And how much time was wasted by students taking the opportunity to mess around in this novel environment rather than doing something useful?
She also gave us another example of how things had changed for the better. We have just begun a unit on Gothic Horror with Year 9. In the first lesson we teach them about the conventions of the genre and give a brief historical overview. She said how a few years ago she’d printed four or six examples from the genre and laid them around the room, expecting groups of students to work together to read these (incredibly challenging 18th and 19th Century) extracts and “discover” for themselves what the conventions were, whilst she hung back with all the knowledge they needed in her head, afraid to just tell them what they needed to know. (Add to this the fact that many teachers would have felt compelled to deck their rooms out with spooky garb – imagine the time cost! – turn off the lights, and play some spooky music as the students walked in). By the end the ones that were better at the subject might have identified a few conventions but they would have no contextual knowledge and she’d end up having to put all this right next time. Instead, by talking through what they needed to know and getting them to write a response to the question “What is Gothic and why is it still important today?” students have learnt lots and consolidated that in their own written response, which they can return to and read at any point.
Another issue identified by the workshop leader was that teachers have been expected to compete with attention-grabbing media platforms (mobiles, Xboxes etc.) to engage and maintain their students’ attention. Surely this is just insane? Shouldn’t we be finding ways to improve and lengthen students’ concentration spans rather than accepting that they need everything to be dumbed down into fun, short doses? Surely the point of education is to improve students’ minds, not to accept that the damage is done and so pander to and exacerbate dwindling attention spans and the need for immediate gratification?
After this the discussion was opened up to allow everyone to share their own ideas and experiences of things that work in the classroom. A maths teacher talked about the importance of making thought processes visible through careful, methodical modelling and at the same time highlighting where mistakes might be made, whilst also emphasising how difficult what the students are being asked to do actually is, thereby building the students’ confidence and self-esteem when they understand the process.
Another Maths teacher spoke about opening lessons with low-stakes, closed question quizzing to recap learning from the previous lesson. This is something we’ve been using in English to help embed the knowledge needed for the new Literature exams, and we’ve found it to be very effective.
I suggested that structuring learning into a repetitive cycle is something that can improve behaviour, memory, and performance. For example, in English, every section of learning is set up with a big question and some kind of hook or link to another topic. One of my big questions this week was “How does the Inspector assert his authority when he arrives?” (in An Inspector Calls). We began with an image of the Inspector and recapped with a series of closed and then open questions about his character and role in the play. We then read the relevant piece of text and discussed and mind-mapped possible points to include in the piece of writing that would follow. Next, we revised the criteria required for an excellent response to a literature question through discussion and interpretation of the mark scheme (which we’ve done many times over the last two years), and students were given 45 minutes to write a response (whilst I circulated to give advice and support). Afterwards the piece was peer-assessed three times and then students extended and/or improved their original piece in response to the comments. At this point (about halfway through the second lesson) we wrapped that episode up and moved onto our new learning question. This took minimal planning on my part and everybody in this mixed ability group produced something worthy of a Grade C or above in old money (Grade 4-9 currently).
The idea here is that we move away from planning for lessons but rather plan for “episodes”, however long these episodes need to take (which is often quite unpredictable), and in doing that the planning is massively reduced because we just start the process again when we get to the end each time. Not only that, but students always know what’s coming and so time isn’t wasted teaching them how to do an activity: the engagement comes in the fascinating topics being studied and the teacher’s passion, expertise and relationships with the class.
Relationships and subject knowledge were also discussed at length: it was generally agreed that all students respect a teacher that they know works hard for them, knows their stuff, but is also unafraid to appear fallible and human. We also agreed that the time wasted on gimmicky teaching was far better spent reading up on our subjects to improve and deepen our own subject knowledge, rather than creating shallow, superficial, fun activities that benefited no-one and burnt teachers out as they tried to think up even more original ideas and struggled to manage volatile, unpredictable classroom environments.
It was a fascinating hour and one that suggested that by avoiding creating pointless, gimmicky activities and just discussing topics, working through problems together, revisiting content and employing an effective lesson structure, workload could be made manageable, learning more effective, and teachers kept sane (and in the profession). All this ensures that students make great progress because they know they are getting a good deal from somebody who cares about them and the subject being studied, thereby allowing them to maximise their potential so that more opportunities are open to them at the next stage of their lives.