It's Not Your Parent's Classroom Anymore

There has been a lot of chatter lately in the Twittersphere and at conferences about two ideas that seem to be slowly gaining traction in education: 
1. Project Based Learning (PBL)--and you might as well include 20% Time in that conversation, and 
2. the notion of schools being THE best place to allow our students to fail.  
I have been ruminating on both of these concepts a lot the past few months.  In this post I am going to attempt to tackle both succinctly and intelligently

Let's start with the first one: PBL/20% Time.  finally came to the realization that this is the way to approach learning at all grades.  And it only took my 7 year old and a talking bus to help me realize this.  After all, I'm a history teacher by trade so how exactly does one teach the French Revolution or the writing of the U.S. Constitution or the origins of civilization or the causes of WWI as a project?  I know that all you PBL evangelists are moaning at the notion that it has taken me so long to convert and for that I apologize.   But I at last understand and fully embrace the reality that in this day and age of Google and the internet I don't have to teach any of that because students can search that information and have the answer in a matter of seconds.  Education has to take learning to the next level.  Period.  

So what do my son and a talking bus have to do with my epiphany?  Simple: every day my son brings home worksheets for homework.  We all did, right?  His approach: just get them done and move on to play time.  Does he actually retain anything from these worksheets beyond the need to use "good" (I use that term loosely!) penmanship  and be sure to put his name at the top?  In a word, "NO".  So why have I supported this?  Quite simply, because that is the way I learned, so clearly that is the way he will learn.  

Well, guess son DOESN'T learn that way.  He actually has learning differences and every week I see a little more of his enthusiasm for learning being squashed due to this very thoughtless (yes, I will be that harsh) method of instruction.  So, enter the talking bus.  There is a bus that is just beginning a tour of catholic schools around the country.  It is sponsored by Notre Dame University.  And the bus has a Twitter handle (you can check it out for yourself: @theACEbus).  So what if my son's class was following the bus and they began to learn some math, geography, history and science based on the bus route and Tweets?  The bus could tweet the cost of gas (or the class could tweet the bus and ask) and they could chart the prices.  They could then discuss why gas prices might vary from place to place.  They could look at the next stop on the bus itinerary and predict the cost of gas in that city.  Older students could learn word problems by finding out the speed and the next destination and then check their calculations against Google maps.  They could then engage in discussions about why their time calculation may or may not match that of Google maps.  

Here are some ideas that could work for any elementary grade: How about learning about the state the bus is in?  Learning the map of the US by following the route?  What about planning alternate routes for the bus and talking about why students designed that particular route?  They could learn about the seasons in different parts of the country, or the customs of different regions that are based on the ethnicities of the groups who first populated that region.  The possibilities seem endless.  

Then, the students can build on these fun conversations (which are learning in disguise) and identify what they are most inspired by to then propose their own 20% project to pursue for that quarter or semester.  Maybe it has to do with learning their family history or answering the question: "If I could visit anywhere in the country, it would be...", or perhaps they want to develop a new mode of transportation (flying cars anyone?), or...  Kids have a great number of questions that they would just love to answer if given the chance.  

Now, I realize that talking buses don't come along every day but there are many ways to simulate something about picking a college or pro sports team to track when they are on the road, or look at the routes traveled by produce grown locally vs. produce that is trucked in from other states or even other countries.  These are just a few ideas.  But you can see how this would be so much more interesting than doing worksheets every day.  And at the end of the day, if my son had to continue his learning because tomorrow he is reporting back to the class on how long it takes grapes (one of his favorite fruits) to reach his table from Argentina when they are sold in our supermarket out of season, I guarantee he would be MUCH more excited about that than filling out a problem worksheet.  

So this leads me to the second half of my musings: failure.  We make a big deal about ensuring that students master material so that they don't earn the dreaded "F" on an assignment or assessment.  And we make a point to tell students that we don't "give" grades, they "earn" them.  Wow!  How is that for a mood killer?  A student tries their best based on their understanding of your expectations and all you can say is "F"?!  Well, news flash: in the "big bad world" you go through a process of trial and error.  You solicit feedback from your team, you get a result that you don't like and you go back to the drawing board.  Your boss doesn't give you an "F", your boss tells you to solve the problem.  

We are not preparing our students for the "real world" when they are so fearful of failure that they become paralyzed by and indifferent to the actual process of learning.  Students need to be willing to keep trying until they find an answer that solves the problem.  Teachers need to be willing to let go of "one right answer" and both model and encourage creative problem solving.  If I was in the classroom this year, that would mean very few multiple choice tests (only in my AP class because, well, let's face it,  it is going to be a long time before ETS and the College Board realizes that facts do NOT need to be tested any more) and more open-ended assessments that are NOT timed tests.  How often do any of us as adults face a situation where we have a set amount of time to solve a problem with no resources other than what is stored in our brain and a #2 pencil? NEVER.  So why do we still insist on following this protocol at school?  I am really quite dumfounded by the whole thing the more I think about just how archaic and out of touch the school room is with reality.  Yet I am willing to bet that every single educational institution promises it's parents, students and communities that their graduates will be "ready for the world".  Really?

And as for making sure students learn what they are "supposed" to learn.  Aren't our students supposed to ultimately learn how to interpret information, draw conclusions, think critically, and be able to express their conclusions succinctly?  Any authentic (I use "authentic" instead of "creative" because I feel that  creative implies something a bit unusual and I do not believe that I am discussing anything unusual, but rather what should be the new norm) approach to learning will definitely accomplish this.  Students will learn the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic along the way, not because they have to, but because they WANT to and NEED to in order to solve their problems. The "three R's" become embedded in the learning rather than distinct subjects taught out of context.

The solution is daunting as it requires reprogramming teachers, teacher credential programs, state education offices, national tests, our parent communities, and our students.  But, we know that every journey begins with a single step and I believe that if enough of us are willing to take that first step at our own institutions, perhaps before my son graduates from college we will have accomplished that change.  And that would be a pretty awesome accomplishment.  So spread the word, begin to plan your innovation and take your first step.  Our students are counting on us.

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  1. Very nicely said! Great examples, questions, and examples. I'm just loving your blog and now I am caught up :-)


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