Saturday, November 18, 2006

Glue guns shoot down real studying

Time-consuming and often pointless projects are not only devouring students' time but also rob parents of whatever free time they have. Acquiring substantive subject matter knowledge must inevitably take a back seat.

Ken DeRosa has found a mother's plea that calls for an end to this educationist extravaganza:

It can wreck marriages and destroy family life, and it's more burdensome than travel soccer, football practice, or the Boy Scouts: It's the school project.

Ask a bunch of mothers how they spent their week, and they will tell you that they built the Parthenon with sugar cubes, the Pyramids from milk cartons, and Mount Olympus using Cocoa Puffs.

Consider a recent Sunday evening at my house. The kids had gone to bed, and Mom and Dad were relaxing in the living room. But suddenly, a voice cried out from upstairs.

"Mom, I forgot I need to bring a hot glue gun to school tomorrow for a project. We are making African masks in social studies. And, oh yeah, Mom, I also need pipe cleaners, a box of sugar cubes, and some wooden spoons - you know, the kind they use with those little ice cream cups."

Half-dressed, I hopped into my minivan and searched for a hardware store open late on a Sunday. Thank goodness for the 24-hour Walgreens, where aisles are filled with construction paper, glue sticks, and pipe cleaners - but, alas, no hot glue guns.

Please, oh please, dear curriculum developers, give us parents a break: Ban all make-work projects. Parents have jobs, too, you know. We do our children's homework. We serve on school boards, coach basketball, and volunteer with the Boy Scouts. Now you want us to be creative?!
The project method was widely acclaimed by progressive educationists upon its publication by William H. Kilpatrick in 1918. It has become a mainstay in education thanks to a convergence of educationist fads, tenets and theories. Illinoisloop has one of the best explanations of this mania that I have ever seen:

• Constructivism:
The pervasive education religion of "constructivism" holds that a child learns best through active "doing". To some extent, this is of course true. However, the Achilles heel of constructivism is that this is a painfully plodding and tedious way of learning, while forcing a drastic reduction (dumbing down) of the content of a course. While an active project may often be a good technique for making a difficult concept clear, it is often used when a simple direct method would be just as effective and far more efficient.

• Groups:
The pressure for "collaborative learning" or "cooperative learning" is frequently met with more projects and activities.

• Interdisciplinary curriculum:
Teachers are under pressure to find "thematic" or "interdisciplinary" links between subjects. There is nothing inherently wrong with that -- the Core Knowledge Sequence used in the Core Knowledge schools is carefully constructed to encourage learning in this way. But without a rigorous, well-reasoned curriculum like the CK Sequence, the result too often is time-wasting art or writing projects linking vague language arts goals with minimal content points.

• Multiple Intelligences:
The fevered success of another fad, Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences (click for much more info on that), pressures teachers into coming up with separate projects for each of this theory's supposed categories. So, we have one project to appeal to "kinesthetic" children, another project for the "intrapersonal" learners, we sing a song for the "musical" learners, and so on. Of course, since the MI mindset offers no method to identify or quantify these supposed differences, the bottom line is lots and lots of projects for all the children in the class.

• Anti-Fact Mentality:
Starting in ed school and throughout their careers in most schools, teachers are subjected to a barrage of rhetoric about the dangers of teaching facts. They are told not to teach "mere facts" to be "regurgitated." Learning of specific content knowledge is called "low level" and nothing more than "memorization." What used to be called "learning" is now disparaged as "brain-stuffing". A teacher is to be "a guide on the side" rather than "a sage on the stage." This drumbeat from the ed schools and education orthodoxy is pervasive and relentless, and teachers are drilled incessantly (ironic, isn't it?) that direct teaching is to be avoided. So, if the teacher isn't teaching, what are the kids likely to be doing? Yup, more projects.

• Anti-Fact Assessments:
If facts are bad, then testing whether children know facts is even worse -- or so teachers are told. Thus, chapter tests and other quantitative measures of learning are deemphasized in favor of so-called "authentic" assessment, in which we look at a whole "portfolio" of a child's "work" which largely consists of (ta da!) projects.

• "Authentic" Skills:
If the purpose of a school is not to build knowledge, then what is a school for? The progressivists have a ready answer for that: to learn supposed "skills." They argue that since knowledge is always increasing, it is hopeless to try to teach very much at all (using a twisted logic that defies comprehension). What kids need, they say, is to learn how to look things up. Well, guess what? Projects give them an "opportunity" to look things up instead of being taught.

• Innovation:
School administrators suppose themselves to be seen as "creative" or "innovative." We often read of a school calling itself "innovative" or a teacher said to be "creative" ort "imaginative." Those are fine attributes, but not when they take the place of words like "effective" or "knowledgeable." One teacher might be extraordinarily effective and captivating in teaching children a rich, detailed and memorable introduction to American history, while another teacher gains more recognition from parents and maybe the local newspaper not by teaching much of anything but by staging a marathon dress-up pageant, puppet show or enormous craft project.

• Finding a Use for Computers:
Projects provide a convenient raison d'etre for the expensive computers that schools have been buying in bulk.

• Smaller Class Sizes:
For all of the above reasons, the teaching industry is obsessive about urging more dubious classroom projects. But when class sizes are large, it's extremely difficult to manage the hubbub of activity and to try to keep a semblance or order. But as class sizes shrink, it becomes ever more practical for a teacher to assign more and more projects.

On that same page, Illinoisloop has many links to important articles dealing with this project mania.


rightwingprof said...

Have a trackback.

CrypticLife said...

"Parents have jobs, too, you know. We do our children's homework. "

I hope this is just a misstatement.

Catherine Johnson said...

My sister, whose daughter is in 8th grade, actually told the school her daughter would not be doing any more coloring.

Nobody could believe it.

She kept telling other parents, "Just tell them your kid isn't going to do any more coloring."

Anonymous said...

Crypticlife, My experience is this is not a misstatement. My child is sometimes swamped with creative projects to the point of tears. The only homework help she begs me for is help with coloring, painting and glueing what she calls "busy work projects". She is a freshman in high school. I really thought this crafty stuff would be over by now. I wish I had the guts to tell her teachers, "My child is not doing anymore coloring."