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Spring Break Projects
A rather substantial constellation of coincidental events over the past week has gotten me thinking about how we approach project-based learning: a course-planning conversation with the genial mad scientist whose classroom I share, happening to reflect on my experiences in graduate school last year as I walked past the Kennedy School of Government (not my alma mater), pondering a spring of senioritis, and trying to figure out which of many projects I most wanted to tackle myself over this break, ranging from budgeting curriculum development grants to grading to just plain building code.

Right now I’m starting to overhaul my computer science courses for the 2008-2009 school year, while simultaneously talking with my colleague about a potential joint course in 2009-2010. I have a strong personal preference for project-based learning as a teaching tool because I believe that it provides both an engaging and demanding environment in which students are challenged to learn more in order to do more (rather than just to keep me off of their backs). I also think that projects are an ideal forum in which to draw together the disparate strands of a student’s education — helping them to accomplish an integration for which there is rarely, if ever a formal structure at any level of education. (Perhaps the course on How to Make Almost Anything at MIT is the exception.)

Some of this is based on my experience working with summer programs where we pushed students — during their vacations, in the wilderness — to take on an ambitious personal project over the course of the summer. The outcomes of these projects reflected a great deal of real learning, as well as some very idiosyncratic fascinations. I worked with students who were mapping and analyzing the population of our program over the past three-quarters of a century, students who were focused on writing collections of place-based poetry and short fiction, students who were determined to build a new tool that the expeditions could use in years to come. Anything and everything. But the key was that, by and large, students were genuinely excited about these self-designed projects and put in far longer hours and more effort to complete these projects than they would with normal schoolwork (as I know based on some conversation with their school faculties). Engagement and the discovery of an intellectual passion are no trivial accomplishment for an adolescent summer.

Two summers ago, the faculty reading for my school was Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, a book which raises some interesting questions about the direction of education and economics (I suggest skimming liberally through the early chapters… I think it got interesting around page 600 or so). In large part, Friedman’s argument (which is not novel to the educational world) is that those who are able to integrate knowledge and create and construct new ideas based on that integration will have the whip hand in the world of tomorrow (a phrase normally uttered only in echo chambers).

Where in our schools do we offer those opportunities, practice or guidance for our students to integrate the knowledge that they have learned in each discipline. Certainly our instinctual tendency is often to “silo” that education, each discipline focusing exclusively on its own branch of learning, without substantial interaction with other disciplines, or alternatively engaging with other disciplines only as subservient tools of our own, intrinsically more important, discipline. (God knows I’m guilty of this: I’ll look at anything, so long as I get to write some code to work with it down the road.)

As we each start to move towards a project-based curriculum, rich with alternative assessments and challenges to individual student’s passions and interests… we’re going to burn the little puppies right out. This realization came to me as I walked past the Kennedy School, where I took a superlative accounting course last spring — the only course in which I did not have a final project. None of my final projects connected with any other final project, and several were in areas in which I had but marginal interest. This is not something unique to me: all of our students take classes in which they are only marginally interested, in order to fulfill requirements (yes, I’m starting to think about course selection advising as well!).

If every class is so well-designed that it uses the breadth of our pedagogical knowledge and the entire scope of our educational best practices, no student will be able to take a breath long enough to even start to integrate what it is that he or she is learning through this process. How much more powerful would it be for us to guide our students towards a grand, culminating project that required them to draw on multiple disciplines, integrating their knowledge and uniting their teachers as a team in support of this creative work?

Perhaps this is an overly idealistic rendering of the scene, but as I discussed curriculum planning and projects with my mad scientist friend, it became rapidly apparent that the most interesting projects were those that would require more than just one of us (and often more than just one or two of our friends and colleagues) to accomplish. This will require a culture shift at my school. But it will accomplish three major feats, if done well:

  1. Engagement. These projects will be truly fascinating, whether it’s developing a process for fermenting ethanol, building a room-mapping robot or carving giant toltec figures in the landscape.
  2. Authentic Challenges. These projects are clearly not artificial: students working on real problems (often with real professionals) are challenged to learn real things. With careful design, they might even learn the real things that we want them to learn!
  3. Integration. These projects will drive faculty to role model and guide students through making connections between distinct educational disciplines in new and creative ways, in order to accomplish the overall goal.

So why is there a picture of my cat on a table up above? Because I’m struggling with all of this at once and finding it fairly overwhelming. If you click through and look at the list of texts, you will either wonder if I’m trying to build SkyNet by myself, or if I have technology-induced ADD. I suspect the latter. But my hope is that out of this chaos, I will be able to start to bring first order, and then some new ideas for the coming year. And then maybe I can look at training the cat to stay off the table.

March 13th, 2008

Posted In: Teaching

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