Creative, Appealing, Meaningful Learning

In Project-based Learning, students experience school as appealing and the work of their teachers and peers as innovative. In well designed projects, students explore different perspectives and create their own understanding of the world’s most meaningful topics.

Grant Wiggins has just written about a study released in 1983 – my freshman year of high school. The study’s conclusions fit what I remember about schooling:

“School curriculum is sterile. Topics of great human interest on the way to the classroom are apparently transformed and homogenized into something of limited appeal. Students scarcely ever speculate on meaning or discuss alternative interpretations. Teachers teach as they were taught years ago in their own schooling. All the messages received by them conspire to reinforce the status quo. The cards are stacked against innovation.” [emphasis added]

Grant’s post ends with “plus ça change“, and I don’t doubt that in many classrooms, if not in most in the United States, the curriculum is STILL sterile, and the work students are asked to do is STILL neither creative nor meaningful to them.

But many schools and teachers are doing innovative work. It’s not hard to be inspired by the great project-based teaching at High Tech High, the Science Leadership Academy, and at the New Tech Network Schools. In my own career, I’ve been fortunate to have the freedom to see the required curriculum differently, to be creative, and my students have benefited.

Here’s just one example.

In my U.S. History course last year, I wanted my students to think deeply about the cultural effects of the Cold War on American life. After a unit of study in which we explored many of the key political events and social trends through socratic seminar (try this method, here), I put some questions to my students:

  • How might you have been affected by the events of the Cold War, if you had been alive then?
  • How do you think these events in the U.S. and around the world affected individual Americans, and the culture in general?
  • What cultural trends do you notice in America that might have been influenced by the Cold War?
  • What more do you want to know about the Cold War’s impact on American life?

 

Students came up with some truly interesting responses, and raised a number of potential research and discussion topics. I challenged the students to consider if the topics were meaningful to other people, and how. I told them that if the topics passed my vetting process, they would be free to research them, but that they would have to share their answers with the world. They agreed.

By designing a project in which students pursue their own inquiry, what I was actually doing was asking them to speculate on what is historically meaningful and to develop their own interpretations of history. I asked them to be historians.

Here are their topics, in this Google Doc:

Sure, I had content goals for this project in mind before I gave it to the students. My challenge was to fit those content goals into the project’s design. Where there were gaps between the curriculum and the students’ interest, I designed some short socratic seminar moments and embedded them in class at key points during their research. By the end of the project, I was confident that my students were learning in ways that were creative, appealing, and meaningful to them.

In Project-based Learning, students experience school as appealing and the work of their teachers and peers as innovative. In well designed projects, students explore different perspectives and create their own understanding of the world’s most meaningful topics.

How can you see your curriculum differently?

 

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Mike Gwaltney