PBL as common as PBJ? No way, Jose!

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.


About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

One response to “PBL as common as PBJ? No way, Jose!”

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