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Managing Messy Learning
October 23, 2014 | Volume 10 | Issue 4
Table of Contents
Messy Learning, Clear Objectives
Project-based learning can be a wonderful tool to engage students, promote their skill development, and allow them a forum for in-depth study. For this approach to be most effective, teachers and students should engage in discussions at the start of and throughout the project to clearly identify the ultimate goals of the exercise and to consider how each step serves those goals. Project-based learning must have a focus on straightforward and defined objectives, allow for open-ended and student-directed explorations, provide opportunities to practice essential skills, and include check-in points for reflecting on and assessing progress.
A confluence of circumstances led me to an American Civil War memorial project that became the culminating experience of my 5th grade social studies curriculum. By focusing on the objective of analyzing the history and effects of the war and by allowing the students to develop their reading, writing, and oratorical skills in a context that felt relevant and authentic, my students and I completed a project that helped us define some important elements for successful project-based learning.
With only four weeks left in the school year to cover the entire Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, I sought to develop a project that would allow my students to explore the aspects of the war that interested them and to uncover answers to the broader questions of the unit, such as these:
I searched the Internet for a real-world tie-in that would define the project we would work on and infuse our studies with a purpose. I came across a website that discussed the planning stages for a national Civil War Memorial and the role that historians would play in creating its content. My students and I decided that we could try our hand at designing a national Civil War memorial ourselves—an authentic, relevant process that would involve researching the war, identifying its major themes, visiting national war memorials, writing a proposal that explains the design's various components, creating a model, and presenting the proposal and model to a group of "investors" and interested parties.
For inspiration and context, we visited several national war memorials in Washington, D.C., with an architect who framed our investigation by encouraging us to view memorials as "poems made with stones." Based on guiding questions, the students noted the way landscape, architecture, images, and words helped shape the visitors’ experience. Back in the classroom, the students studied the Civil War through multiple secondary and primary sources and took notes on the major events, people, words, and symbols. They then met in groups to consider what message, feeling, and memory they wanted visitors to take away from a Civil War memorial and how they could best create that experience.
Open Ended and Student Directed
As we visited the various war memorials, we observed a wide variety of designs being used and noted that our own memorial plans could address different aspects of the war, highlight different messages, and look markedly different from the other existing memorials. After researching the war, students met in groups to discuss the themes, events, words, and people they wished to highlight. They debated their memorials’ design features, including walls, statues, reflective material, fountains, greenery, benches, flags, and words, and each student took the lead in creating one feature of the memorial and explaining its relevance and symbolism. They even explained their choice of material, noting how material and form serve function and experience.
An open-ended project that offers students choices and encourages them to reflect on those choices allows the students to engage more meaningfully and thoughtfully as they pursue their interests and evaluate their own decision making. The freedom of there being no one right answer and no expected or required finished product can foster more divergent thinking and exciting experimentation. Open-ended features in a class project can help fully capture each student's imagination and motivation, but, at the same time, some structure and guiding purpose must also be present to ensure that the project advances the curriculum's academic and social aims. As teachers and students find inspiration and empowerment in an open-ended project, the class must remain focused on the ultimate objectives of their work: the skill and content-based goals.
From the start of our project, we discussed our objectives and developed a check-in schedule for ensuring that we remained focused on those objectives. To develop their reading comprehension skills, students first worked individually to extract main ideas and supporting evidence from nonfiction texts and then used their notes to inform their thinking about the aspects of the war that they wanted to incorporate into their memorials. While the project helped students explore their artistic side, it also honed their writing skills. Students were required to provide written project updates and contribute to the written proposal that described the components and theme of the war memorials they designed. As they sought the words to articulate abstract thoughts and symbolism to define the meaning and message they hoped their memorial would convey, they refined their writing and higher-level thinking skills.
The collaborative aspects of the project offered opportunities for the students to contribute their unique talents to the effort, as those who enjoyed artistic endeavors helped their peers construct the models, those with a zest for grammar helped edit the proposals, and those with an eye on the clock helped their group stay on task.
As the students presented their completed models and answered questions from their peers, who were serving as board members and investors for the national memorial project, they learned first-hand how important it is to speak clearly and knowledgeably. The feedback from their peers, along with self-reflection and teacher feedback, reinforced the objectives we identified together at the start of the project.
It is important to consider timing when developing and executing project-based learning. Defined schedules help students complete tasks in an organized and timely manner and help to ensure that enough time is allotted for constructive divergences and productive effort. The timing for the Civil War memorial project tapped into the students’ end-of-year enthusiasm, and the deadline of the end of the school year helped us remain focused and efficient. As we plan projects, we can also benefit from checking with the other teachers who teach the same grade to see if there may be conflicting demands of the students’ time and to capitalize on opportunities for integrating lessons.
My experience with the Civil War memorial project helped highlight why project-based learning is considered by many to be the key to student engagement and enduring learning: when students and the teacher join together in open-ended explorations that are defined in scope; focused on building content knowledge; and extend such integral skills as writing, reading, and debate, project-based learning can be a transformative and energizing learning experience. Yet, as Mike Schmoker (2011) cautions, we must maintain our focus on the key experiences and skills that students should encounter and develop and not allow ourselves to become distracted or even derailed by our enthusiasm for any number of popular initiatives.
I have often heard friends and colleagues extol a school program for being entirely project based, as though that characteristic alone ensures high-quality learning and an excellent academic experience. Certainly, many subjects can be creatively taught through projects. However, not everything can or should be taught through a project, just as not everything needs to be taught through technology like an iPad or SMART Board, through role playing, or through whole-class discussions. These are all important tools that can be used to serve the educational goals that drive our instruction, but there is a time and a place for each.
We should not feel that to be successful educators we must figure out a way to teach everything through a project. Rather, we should consider the merits of this important tool and capitalize on opportunities to employ it when circumstances and objectives suit the project format. As we engage in a project, we must have straightforward conversations with our students about the objectives we seek to achieve and maintain regular check-ins to ensure that the work truly fosters the students’ growth. Fostering our students’ growth as insightful and incisive readers, training skilled and compelling writers, and empowering confident and articulate speakers are still our primary goals as educators. Project-based learning should be a device that serves these goals rather than the goal itself.
Schmoker, M. J. (2011). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Lisa Schopf teaches 5th grade at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation's Capital and mentors new teachers through the Jewish New Teacher Project.
ASCD Express, Vol. 10, No. 4. Copyright 2014 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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