Jumping Out of Planes Without Parachutes, Dept.

Advocates of discovery, student-centered, project-based, experiential, etc learning when told such methods are not effective react in a predictable fashion. Namely, they claim that where such methods do not work, they have been implemented incorrectly.

I have likened this response to someone upon hearing that jumping out of an airplane without a parachute results in death saying “But if you do it the right way, you can survive.”

This seems to be what’s going on in the comment section of a Huffington Post article that is non-sympathetic to “experiential learning” or “minimally guided discovery learning” or whatever it happens to be called at the moment.

The project-based learning approach, while attractive to many in the education establishment is neither necessary or sufficient. Those defending the practice seem not to care what students who are pursuing a STEM degree in a good college do to succeed. Such students do not have time for those courses, and as a friend of mine repeatedly points out: “Colleges don’t care one way or the other.”

PBL is nothing new. Kids have been doing science projects in school for years, but it was always in addition to, rather than in place of “bottom up” learning in traditional classes. Instead of devoting such approaches to after-school, they now are increasingly using up valuable class time. This has had the unintended consequence of taking up more time than normal classes, thus eating into other options like music, art, and other subjects.

From the article:

“Unfortunately, minimal guidance advocates continue to believe that too much guidance will impair later performance. They believe that the best way to make learners remember new information is to allow them to construct their own learning as opposed to being provided with a lot of facts and being made to practice basic skills. The fact that cognitive science has proved these notions false has not yet caught up with most education leaders.”

From the comments:

“The best way to put something into long term memory is to work to find the answer. When you find the answer, put it to use. Information that is earned has greater value value than information that is given. Information that is used has greater value than information that is useless. Why would the brain not prioritize information that is of greater value? Also, by helping students find the answer, you are teaching them how to find their own answers.”

And from my friend Tara Houle:

“Multiple studies and evidence has indicated the single biggest issue in education today, is faulty pedagogy and following failed learning fads. It’s definitely NOT poverty, NOT racism, and definitely not due to “neoliberal conservatives”. Socioeconomic conditions have remained constant while student performance has gone down. And there should be NO excuse,based on your argument, while students in Vietnam and other countries outperformed Canadian students in basic math!”

And of course the sine qua non of comments on the internet:

“Tara Houle you are sadly misguided”

And so it goes.


2 thoughts on “Jumping Out of Planes Without Parachutes, Dept.

  1. The writer sets the mood by comparing experiential learning to believing in witches. Nothing like that to polarize the comments section. Then, Malkin Dare turns to cognitive science when all that’s needed is common sense. Unfortunately, like many things in education, definitions like understanding, discovery and problem-based learning are vague. It’s like punching your way out of a paper bag. It’s a difficult issue to tackle because that’s the only thing they are directly taught (by rote) in ed schools.

    I find that the problem is all about academic turf. Educationalists want to define their own area of expertise that sounds much better than just teaching and ensuring basic skills and knowledge in K-6. They’ve grabbed onto ideas for some sort of true understanding and learning. This requires them to trash all forms of “traditional” learning even though that still dominates modern high school learning and success in college and career. (Duh!) This understanding and “deep thinking” turf play centers on making the process of teaching become the key ingredient, not content and basic skills. They claim that there has to be a “balance” of skills and understanding, but this usually means some sort of top-down, process-driven, student-centered, in-class discovery process, where skills are assumed to just happen. That’s why curricula like Everyday Math specifically tell teachers to “trust the spiral” when it appears that students are not achieving mastery of basic skills when they should. I went to a meeting at my son’s school in fifth grade SPECIFICALLY for that problem. Their solution was not to get rid of EM, but to form an after-school (opt-in) class for improving basic skills. (Duh number 2!) They can’t start with ensuring basic skills before PBL because that defeats their goal of achieving academic primacy of their turf. Of course, bottom-up is just common sense. I remember many projects we students had to do on top of basic skills back in the 1960s, and surprise, that’s won the battle over integrated and fuzzy math in high schools. This just means that the ed school pedagogues have to somehow trash success in AP Calculus or just say that very, very few students need that level of schooling – and Pre-Calc, and Algebra II, and even Algebra. Discovery math curricula have been around for 20+ years in K-6 with no success, but they still blame “traditional” math. Now, they say that it’s just not necessary. Sorry, just look in the mirror.

    This is NOT an issue of cognitive science as if ed school pedagogues are going to come the conclusion that their assumptions are completely wrong. They didn’t use proper cognitive science results when they chose those methods in the first place.


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