- Alan Shapiro and Neil Postman 1969-1970
This is not really a teacher issue, though there are teachers who do this. This is mostly a societal and government issue. People accuse me of having a 30,000 foot (10,000 meter) view of education at times, and maybe so, but its a clearer picture than any seen in US State Capitols, or in Arne Duncan's US Department of Education, or in Canberra, or Westminster, or in any of those places where they talk tests and measurement and "Core Knowledge." Unlike all the people in those places, I can see the kids' faces. I can see their boredom. I can see their disdain. I can see them adopt the role of Prisoner of War in a battle our politicians and wealthy and powerful are having with our own children.
We expect kids to learn to read by giving them meaningless exercises and meaningless stories. We expect kids to learn to write by assigning them things no sane human would ever want to write. We expect them to sit in one place when they don't want to do that. We expect them to be interested in history without ever connecting it to their lives. We ask 21st Century teens to read Ethan Fromme and A Separate Peace.
And yet, we dismiss almost everything about their world - their interests, the things they most wonder about, the things they need to know, they way they need to move. We act not just as if we are disinterested, but as if we profoundly distrust kids, and really don't like them very much.
Project-Based Learning is the "How," Passion-Based Learning is the "Why"
United State Secretary of Education, and because they are willing to be very blunt about their incredibly low expectations for teaching1, but the real message from too many colleges of education isn't that far from that - "deliver" content knowledge, while "managing" the classroom - and after that, take care of the needs of children.
This turns teachers into a sad combination of parcel delivery people and boot camp sergeants. It turns kids into sullen, passive receivers. It leaves those kids without strong support for passion-based learning at home, way behind. And - it divides kids into the compliant - those who will win in education, those most like their teachers - and the non-compliant - those we really want to kick out of school.2
Project-Based Learning crosses boundaries of age, development, current capabilities, and our ridiculous divisions of content, and gives a wide range of students a chance. But Passion-Based Learning, passion-based projects, brings kids in, by exploiting the natural curiosities of humans, and by not squelching the learning styles kids have built before they come to school.
Any entry point is good
I don't care if it is racing Hot Wheels cars, playing a first-person shooter video game, building a house, wondering about weird food, or jumping on a trampoline, you have an entry point for a project, and thus a whole range of "curricular" learning.
you may want to skip the hypothesis, and stick with observation
Hot Wheels? You have physics, math, geometry, the history of transportation, automobiles and wheels, the art of industrial design, car-related music, and a rich literature on human movement. Playing video games? You have the science of the game itself, the origins of the art, the physics of the human control v what occurs in the game, a world of interesting mathematics, the history of games, the literature of conflict. Building a house? "The students spent last year learning how to calculate quantities for building supplies, building stairs, and learning about the home building process," which includes maths, sciences, communication skills, and perhaps you'll want to read Tracy Kidder's House. Jumping on a trampoline? Obviously physics and math, materials science, biology of muscles, art of acrobatics, history of entertainment, literature focusing on the circus? Who knows. Every topic of interest to a segment of your school should be your entry point for that group of students. And if you work it right, as students progress, you will be expanding their interests and accepting their expanded interests.
I hear an awful lot of math and science in this project, did the school carry that through?
As I said to a teacher one night on Twitter, "if you can't make anatomy interesting to adolescents you must be looking at the wrong bodies." And if you can't make physics interesting to kids, you're not bouncing a ball. If you can't make stories - both learning them and telling them - interesting to students, you've got the wrong stories. If you can't make history interesting to kids its because you're starting with dates and dead white guys instead of toilets, food, weapons, and animals.
In simple terms, we don't take an assignment and "individualize" it, we take individuals and bring content knowledge to them on their terms. We don't deliver, we offer. We don't manage, we take advantage of who our kids are.
We don't talk a lot about "passion" in our schools. But I think it is time we started.
- Ira Socol
1 See http://www.teachforamerica.org/the-corps-experience/becoming-an-exceptional-teacher/http://www.teachforamerica.org/the-corps-experience/becoming-an-exceptional-teacher/ and read the silly little "real teacher clips" - we "organize" for better delivery, tell kids that they're not 'permanently dumb,' and have unwavering rules.
2 This piece by Frank Beard (TFA '08) is really worth reading, and thinking about. It touches on the fundamental problem with Teach for America even among its most thoughtful participants. The author sees the system failing the students most like himself, because in his untrained eye - and the TFA attitude - success means being like a TFA recruit:
"As a teacher, I saw firsthand the very people who were failed by my district’s leaders:But the author does not see that the system has dramatically failed the "15-25% [of students] that were chronically disruptive," and that he wishes were removed from the school (or in KIPP philosophy, never admitted). Education for some.
"They failed C.P., a quirky, wonderful student who was reading Plato’s Republic for fun in seventh grade
"They failed D.W., a bright, talented student who although sometimes lost his temper due to problems at home, would always apologize afterwards.
"They failed M.J., the sweetest, nicest, most prim and proper student I’ve ever met, who was forced to endure disruption day after day by one of her classmates who threatened to shoot others, was arrested for armed robbery, and made sexually harassing comments to girls
"They also failed M.W., a student who although acted as a class clown at times, was incredibly smart, motivated, and had the potential to do anything he wanted to in life."