Focus on education: Project-based learning often popular, but some question its value

Advocates say projects offer real-world experience; others worry about kids being left out

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2001

In a warm-up for a presentation to adult judges, eighth-grader Shalom Schrader described to classmates how to make a stained glass window, down to how a pair of rusty pliers felt in her hands when she was cutting a piece of glass.

"I learned doing this project how to use a hacksaw, which I had never used before and which I felt really uncomfortable using the first time," Schrader told her fellow Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School students last month. "I also learned how to manipulate the lead so it will go around your glass and how to cut it with a beveled edge.

"I also learned a lot about myself in this project. I learned if I don't have an immediate due date, I procrastinate."

Science and math teacher Paula Savikko said year-long, rites-of-passage projects like Schrader's give students the vehicle to develop some of the skills society wants them to have. She's thinking of results like self-directed goal-setting, communicating well, creative problem-solving, and contributing to the community and the world.

"You not only build your education but personal skills," Dzantik'i Heeni sixth-grader Henry DeCherney said of school projects. "And you kind of figure out who's a natural leader."

But the project method is being questioned nationwide as schools are spurred to do well on standardized tests, usually of English and math skills, that can determine a school's reputation and who graduates from high school.

"Teachers all over the country are feeling pressured to stop doing the best kinds of instruction so that they can drill students on the material likely to be covered on the tests. And that is immoral," said Alfie Kohn, author of "The Schools Our Children Deserve," in an interview from his Boston-area office.

At the same time, some parents are concerned about the academic rigor of assignments like posters and dioramas and an excess of projects, said Leah Vukmir, president of Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools, a grassroots parent and teacher group in Wisconsin.

Projects are one of the biggest categories of complaints she hears from parents.

"Their first complaint is, 'Why is there so much group work? Why am I supplementing their education at home? Why aren't they getting it at school?' " Vukmir said from Milwaukee. "The parents notice gaps in learning because not everything is covered in this kind of setting."

Projects can be good, said author E.D. Hirsch Jr., who has written about the knowledge he thinks all students should have. But projects don't offer enough opportunities to apply principles, and they take time away from more effective methods.

"The project approach is too simple. It's not broad enough. You need 10 examples of a subject to really get the subject," Hirsch said from Charlottesville, Va., where he just retired as a professor of English and education at the University of Virginia.

Learn by doing

Talking about project-based learning, it turns out, is a good way to ask what we want students to know and be able to do.

Project supporters say the method trains students to work with others and use skills to solve problems related to real life.

Savikko's students have studied the health of a nearby creek and created brochures to tell the neighborhood about its condition. That project began with classroom instruction for the background science and followed with its practical application: "Now look at this stream and tell me if it's healthy based on what you know," Savikko said.

Traditionally kids were given data but didn't know how to get it, said Sylvia Chard, a professor of early education in Alberta who directs an elementary school that features projects.

"The best kind of learning takes place when kids design projects that help them answer their own increasingly complex questions about the world," Kohn said. "At its best, learning is organized by questions, problems and projects rather than being seen as a collection of facts and skills organized in the traditional disciplines."

Some advocates contrast projects with the rote memorization of facts, which they say are quickly forgotten. Facts can be looked up, they say. They want to teach children how to learn, a skill that will prepare them for the workplace.

The traditional classroom, with its emphasis on learning out of context, lecturing and repetitive practice of basic skills, doesn't meet the needs of employers anymore, says Co-nect, a Cambridge, Mass.,-based company that advises schools on reform and promotes technology and project-based learning. Dzantik'i Heeni is a demonstration site for Co-nect.

Employers today are looking for higher-order thinking, creativity, flexibility, teamwork and an understanding of technology, Co-nect says on its Web site.

"I think it really prepares me for life because I don't think life is just worksheets and stuff like that," said Dzantik'i Heeni sixth-grader Joey Bosworth. "Most professions, all you do are projects."

Do by learning

People who have concerns about project-based learning say its supporters caricature traditional instruction and wrongly denigrate knowledge in academic subjects.

"Good traditional education is very efficient, very effective and very interesting because you have a good teacher who makes it interesting," Hirsch said.

Good teachers give students generalizations and concrete examples, in a constant back-and-forth dialogue, and then summarize at the end, he said.

Students don't learn higher-order thinking skills except through specific knowledge developed over time, Hirsch and others say. What you know is what you're able to do.

"It's specific, learning is," Hirsch said. "And so you don't learn how to learn. If you want to learn how to learn math, you have to do math."

Memorization "is important to high-level thinking skills," added Paul Berg, headmaster at Thunder Mountain Academy, a private school for grades five to eight in Juneau. "Experts really have a very, very broad knowledge base. It may be easy to look something up, but you can't integrate it into your thought patterns unless you know the subject."

But the traditional academic subjects don't teach the content people need when they get on the job, some say.

"I hold very little belief that what you learned in school is particularly relevant to what you do in your job," said Roger Schank, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University who advocates that children learn by doing.

In his book on the Internet, "Engines for Education," Schank says we have to get over the idea that some stuff is worth knowing even if you never do anything with it.

Reaching the most

Some educators say a shared curriculum of broad knowledge is a matter of equity. There's a much stronger correlation between learning ability and general knowledge than there is between learning ability and family income, Hirsch said.

Hirsch argues that advantaged students get basic skills and background knowledge at home. But students from poor families may not learn those skills and information if schools don't teach them. Project-based learning is the least effective teaching method if you want to reach everyone, he said.

But others say projects are more responsive to the various learning needs and interests of individual students.

"Children learn in different ways, have different styles, and build on very different backgrounds of experience," Chard, the education professor, says on her Project Approach Web site. "Children also achieve at a higher level in school if they are interested in what they are doing and interests can vary considerably within an average class group."

What sticks in Hirsch's mind is a project on the Underground Railroad in which fourth- and fifth-graders baked biscuits because they heard that escaping slaves ate biscuits.

"I claim it's an undemocratic method of teaching," Hirsch said of projects. "People who are prepared can get something out of a project. And people who aren't just get the taste of biscuits."

Eric Fry can be reached at

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