Another chapter summary from “Seven Myths of Education”.
Myth : Projects and Activities are the Best Way to Learn
Theoretical Evidence that this myth exists:
Projects and activities, which focus on real world problems, are the, currently, glorified methods of instruction.
An holistic approach, rather than a subject based focus, is currently desirable. Making links, across subject areas, is a priority.
Teacher-directed instruction is labelled ‘spoon feeding’ and accused of churning out children who are unable to learn independently. One study states that 1 in 3 uni students can’t learn independently. It is believed that this is because teacher are treating students as empty vessels waiting to be filled and hence the uni students are expecting to be filled too.
Students should be able to use and apply a number of skills, within context, across a variety of subject areas. Teachers want students to “think like a scientist”, and “think like an historian”. They don’t want them to ‘just’ have knowledge. The idea being that ‘scientific thinking’ will lead to ‘scientific content’ so the teacher doesn’t need to directly teach it. It is believed that students are disempowered if given another person’s thinking.
The current view is that students need to be prepared for the real world and hence they need real world problems so they can ‘practice’ thinking like what they might be in the real world ie. scientists, historians etc.
Evidence that the belief persists in Modern Practices:
In the classroom, teachers are removing subject barriers and integrating real world problems across the curriculum. Some keep subjects, merely as an organising structure, and teach projects within subject areas.
The goal is to make students more independent and less reliant on teachers.
Good practise is to have students asking their own questions, planning their own work, determining how they will find answers, exploring their own best way of learning, organising their time, and assessing themselves.
As well as learning, students nowadays are taking the role of teacher and assessor too. Peer assessment is common practise.
Modern teachers are focused on students’ learning rather than teaching the students. They plan realistic activities. For example, a group of students was asked to help make the school library more eco-friendly. The students had to design ideas, write emails, locate costs, give a persuasive pitch and presentation.
REAL – Realistic Experience for Active Learners. These are fictional scenarios where the students act like experts in order to practice the skills they will need in the real world. REAL activities provide opportunities to learn teamwork, communication, independent learning, and problem solving. The activities are also enjoyable and motivating for the students. The students solve complex realistic real world problems. Little guidance is given to the students.
This approach is also used for teaching literature. One example was given of a lesson on Romeo and Juliet. The students were required to present a scene from Romeo and Juliet using puppets and props they made themselves.
In History, a class learned about the British empire through designing an Empire commemorative plate.
Website called Active History is full of REAL resources. A very popular activity for learning about medieval history is designing a coat of arms.
Modern educators, rather than imposing knowledge on students, aim to have students construct their own knowledge.
Why is “Projects and Activities are the Best Way to Learn” a myth?
The problem with having novices ‘act’ as experts, aside from the fact that it takes years to become an expert, is that experts have a huge body of knowledge and process in their long term memory that novices don’t have. This body of knowledge and processes changes how experts think. It’s not just extra stuff that they know. Experts actually solve problems differently to novices.
There is simply no short cut from novice to expert and it’s unrealistic to think that children or even high schoolers can ‘act’ like an expert.
Copying expert behaviours won’t make a novice an expert. Experts and novices used different tactics when approaching problems. Experts use ‘self-talk’ to help retrieve the knowledge and processes stored in their long term memory. Novices have little to no access to such knowledge and processes so practicing ‘self-talk’, an expert behaviour, will not help a novice.
Modern educators are confusing causation with correlation. Here’s an example of what this means. There is an islander group called the cargo cult that remembers a time in WW2 when planes landed on their island. The people want this time to return so they have built a makeshift runaway, and various parts of an airport, as best they could recall. Their belief is that if they build it, the planes will come. They believe that the visible environment (the correlations) would cause the planes to return. Returning to our education example, educators teach children ‘self-talk’ because it is a known expert behaviour and they want their students to become experts so they practice expert beaviours. However, self-talk is not what ’causes’ people to become experts.
Having novices copy the behaviours of experts (ie think like a scientist, think like an historian) doesn’t acknowledge the body of knowledge and processes that experts have stored in their long term memory.
In lessons, educators shouldn’t aim to have students act and think like experts. Instead, they should aim to equip students so one day they can solve problems independently, like experts.
In the example of designing an eco-friendly library, experts have a lot of knowledge and process they can deploy to solve the problem. Novices don’t have this and hence they aren’t going to be able to successfully solve the problem. At best, their efforts will be hit and miss. All the new information and skills they need, will totally overload their working memory.
To successfully complete a project (or some complex real life problem) students require a body of knowledge to draw from. If schools are no longer explicitly teaching this knowledge, then students have to draw on what little knowledge they already have available to them. Hence, projects are particularly inappropriate for young students who have the least amount of knowledge and processes stored in long term memory. They also disadvantage children from lower socioeconomic families as they many not have exposure to the same amount of knowledge as children living in wealthier families with more highly educated parents.
Teachers are already realising that students are not going to be successful at these projects unless the teachers simplify the tasks for them. So, instead of having a student write a report about the British Empire, the students might be required to design a new Emblem for the British Empire. Or, when assigning reports, students are given help sheets that tell what each paragraph must contain. (Of course, giving an explicit lesson on the structure of a report would be unthinkable).
The real reason uni students are not independent learners is because they were always taught as though they were independent already and they weren’t; that they were experts already, but they weren’t.
An educator’s aim should be to positively alter long term memory.
To remember something you need to think about that something. They means that the things you are thinking about should be worthy of remembering.
Educators needs to consider what their students will be thinking about in the lessons they plan. For example, one educator planned a lesson on the Underground Railroad and had their students bake cookies like the runaway slaves might have eaten. The students in this lesson would predominantly have been thinking about the baking and eating experience with the cookies and NOT the underground railroad or the runaway slaves.
This project approach is also very time consuming meaning that children ultimately learn less than generations before them. Consider if a history class spends two hours of their twenty hours that term designing, making and presenting their medieval coat of arms. That’s one tenth of their history instruction time used on one small area of history (although those students weren’t even thinking about history but drawing and colouring).
Artificial drill based teaching is best. Consider football for example. You don’t teach football by having students simply play a lot of competitive games (the experts know this; many schools and children’s clubs haven’t figured it out yet though). You break down the task to its smallest parts and you practice them until they are automatic. It is the same with things like Math and English. Students need a lot of practice at the smaller elements that make up the bigger more complex tasks.
Sadly, it is common practice to simply ask a child to write, without giving them explicit instruction or practice on how to spell, how to write quality sentences with accurate grammar, how to form paragraphs or even how to correctly structure the specific genre.
Grammar went out of favour in the 60s and several generations didn’t receive grammar instruction. Then bits and pieces of grammar came back into vogue, but since the current teachers never received grammar instruction in schools, they don’t have the skills to teach grammar to this generation.
Equipping students to solve real world problems is a noble aim, but the current method of having students act like experts and pretend to solve real world problems is dreadful. Rather than having their students copy expert behaviours, educators must start teaching students the fundamental knowledge and processes that experts have.