Monday, July 27, 2015

Project Push, Project Pull

A Response to Lankshear & Knobel, New Literacies, Chapter 8

It is often impressed upon me in various ways that science education can always benefit by engaging students in science-y projects. I have never been terribly enthusiastic about many of these proposals. Yes, projects are fun, they provide a hands-on experience, but the connection to actual learning is murky. The physics learning standards established by my state may amount to a shopping cart of seemingly arbitrary topics, but I am bound by the standard, so time spent on any project must be pedagogically fruitful in that context. Projects are also promoted as a way to engage students in their learning, but the engagement tends to be based on competition rather than learning. Teaching science with projects seems eminently sensible, so I have found it difficult to fully explain my objections.

If I take the view presented by Lankshear and Knobel in the final chapter of New Literacies, I find that I have access to language and concepts that help me understand my hesitation to adopting projects in my classes. The curriculum that Lankshear and Knobel describe at the Quest to Learn School in New York would appear, at first glance, to be a successful project-based curriculum. Lankshear and Knobel make clear, however, that the education is situated, that the students take on meaningful roles as learners within a community of practice (p. 247). The school uses projects not as part of a program but as part of a platform. In particular, the school uses games as the main platform:
The point here is not that students are learning by playing games as such . . . Rather, the learning principles of games are used to create learning environments . . . (p. 247)

The kinds of projects I object to are projects that do not create an authentic learning environment for my students. These projects are heavily programmed in a traditional 'push' fashion. If a project is seen by the students as simply another assignment, then they are not being engaged by an opportunity to take on identities as learners, to 'learn to be' according to the 'pull' model of Brown and Adler (2008). And once I state this, it becomes clear that the same can be said of any activity I ask my students to engage in; labs, demonstrations, hands-on activities, worksheets. By using games, simulations, models, and stories as platforms, my students can take on more authentic roles as learners.

Here is an example I can describe. NASA, in its role of educator, has a programmed project available for schools that asks students to form teams of 'rocket scientists' with the goal of designing and building a rocket. There is an elaborate collection of activities with role-playing and assignments that can take up to two full weeks or more of class time. The main engagement is through the chance to actually build and launch a rocket and to compete with the other teams. The entire project is very much a 'push' project. The experience of physics teachers before me at my school was one of almost literally pushing students through a process that was viewed by them as inauthentic. What learning was accomplished or reinforced was uncertain. They did enjoy making and launching the rockets, though. The competition part was of much less interest than one might expect.

Based on this reporting, I decided right away to eliminate the inauthentic 'push' elements of the project and focus on the rocket designing, building, and launching. Students are given basic materials, are shown a few example rockets, and off they go. They are allowed laptops to research design ideas, and the rocket building is very much trial and error. They work in teams and keep a close eye on the work of the other teams. Because this is a technical school, students already have a habit and expectation of building or making things on their own. They share their varied skills, and have permission to take their rockets to their shops for raw materials, spray-painting, logo design, etc. The rockets are tested in the hallway, and often it's "back to the drawing board." There is a deadline - the launch day. This happens outside, with multiple classes, and with results that range from spectacular to comical. Everybody is happy, and it's all over in four days.

The students do learn some things about rockets per se, but the rockets are really just a platform the students use to experiment with identities as learners and makers.

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