I’ve been doing this 20 years and I should know….

November 29, 2010 at 11:04 PM 2 comments

Sound familiar? Don’t you hate that mindset? Along with “Oh inquiry just takes too long.” “It’s too chaotic and its more about doing than learning.” and “I’m the expert here. The kids need to learn what I have to teach them.”

Even though frustrating, there is a grain of truth in all of those statements. And in the end, what is the evidence that inquiry and project-based learning is effective and the way of the future? Other than “I’ve been doing this for 20 years… ” Which I have 🙂 Plus.

So here’s something substantive to come back at ’em with: Linda Darling-Hammond et al’s “Powerful Learning – What we know about teaching for understanding” . They’ve done the leg work and meta-analysis about the effectiveness of pbl and inquiry. Much of it not too surprising but with the proper research backing my principal may need to justify spreading pbl more widely at our site, and similarly for the superintendent and school board as they contemplate pbl though the district.  Excellent examples and specific, research-based strategies bring pbl and inquiry alive across the curriculum.

Linda Darling-Hammond’s inspiring talk “The Flat World and Education – How America can become a world leader in education once again” at Chautauqua Institute is totally worth the hour. Fun, feet on the ground and clearly a real teacher herself. Tip for any presentation to teachers – take kid work to share.

Her book  will help us get to the vision spun in her talk.

Some highlights from the book:

– A short summary of needed 21st Century skills.

– The effectiveness of engaging students in ambitious and meaningful tasks that require them to use and test what they know.

– The value of connecting new knowledge to their existing conceptions.

– Metacognitive skills are also key – students need to actively monitor their understanding and learning.

– Clear standards, consistent and frequent feedback and actively engaging students.

All these are not too surprising to me. Not that I manage most of them most of the time, but I do know to ASPIRE to them.

Some surprises:

1. Guess what – no body likes having their prior knowledge rubbished. “I can’t believe you thought that. How cute. Well, this is how it really works…” Kids will say yeah, yeah, yeah and spew back your explanation on the test but they can’t apply it and secretly don’t alter their way of seeing the world. Instead, the authors find studies showing that people learn best when their prior conceptions are aired, discussed. New information and experiences are actively integrated through discussion. Takes a bit longer but means they can then apply their deeper understanding in novel situations.

2. Just because you are in primary grades doesn’t mean you can only think concretely. It’s a misunderstanding of Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. It means we have been underestimating what young children can understand, at least in some ways.

3. The tremendous value of formative assessment. I was always intimidated by ‘formative assessment’ but now understand it differently to mean  coaching and meaningful, specific and personal feedback on how they are doing. So going around group by group, checking in with each of them, handing work back individually with a comment. That’s really useful, according to the research and it’s got to be good for relationships with my twitchy, funny and um, spirited 8th graders particularly. I’ve tended to try to get stuff done during classes at my desk. No, no, have to figure out how to be PRESENT more. so it’s a real challenge for me. I get sort of tired and shy sometimes, plus am very time-pressured but I will be making a bigger effort to do this. Coaching. I feel sort of inspired to do that.

4. I liked that cautions and pitfalls were honestly stated, mainly how to ensure it’s about doing to learn rather than doing for the sake of doing. And that there are real issues with scaling up pbl and inquiry to teachers who are not highly trained and motivated to teach that way. It’s in contrast to the stupid ‘t’ charts in so many ed books with this way good, that way bad and dumb.

Yeah, it really is hard to be flexible with 6 classes a day, it’s amazingly hard to manage 100 slightly different projects with 160 very different kids. (“Learning is not standardized.”) But it IS possible and it’s also possible to try, mess up, tweak it with the kids helping, and try again.

Persistence, hope and resilience. A value they will so need to survive and thrive in the hard world that’s coming.



Entry filed under: Critical Thinking, Education Psychology, Inquiry and critical thinking, Project Based Learning. Tags: , , , .

Thanksgiving, Thank Goodness! Keeping the project plates spinning

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Susan Walsh  |  November 30, 2010 at 4:23 AM

    One of the biggest obstacles I encountered when giving workshops on child-centered learning – now codified somewhat as PBL – was that there are clearly masses of teachers out there whose own sense of inquiry and intrigue had gone missing for some time! I met many who could teach their subject nicely, from years of following the manuals and staying on track with a timetable. Oh, they’d tweak here or there, find some fun new way to introduce Chapter 6 — but the idea of saying something along the lines of, “You know, I’ve been wondering what would happen if…” and turning kids (for all intents and purposes) loose was unimaginable.

    I’m firmly convinced that to be a credible teacher, one must preserve and feed one’s own sense of wonder., of curiosity, of the need to try something just to see what happens. How else can we recognize and feed it in others?

    I love your enthusiasm!



  • 2. Sue Boudreau  |  December 2, 2010 at 7:22 AM

    I think that’s a really insightful comment, Susan. And now, how to select, cultivate and re-awaken curious teachers…




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