Articles I Never Finished Reading, Dept.

This one is about project-based learning and has the usual disparagement of traditional teaching:

“Wetherington described learning through STEM as moving away from teachers lecturing and students completing worksheets, and more toward hands-on integrated lessons.

“We are providing the context for students to learn math and science and integrate them together and apply their knowledge in new and powerful ways,” he said. “It’s a very exciting thing to see students take knowledge that they’ve traditionally seen on a whiteboard or handouts, and really transform that into hands-on work.”

What isn’t mentioned is that such approach has been the purpose of science labs for years. The difference now, is turning much of instruction–including math classes– into one big science lab. Sure it was exciting when I took high school physics and saw how the trig I was learning in pre-calc was used to solve actual problems. But the textbook problems (disparagingly referred to as the dreaded “whiteboard” or “handouts”) prepared me for doing that.

One of the differences of PBL implementation now is using the lab or “project” as the means as well as motivation to learn what should have been prior knowledge. “Just in time” learning has its place when done right–I’ve seen it done right and have done it myself– but I’ve also seen it implemented in a fashion akin to throwing a kid in the deep end of a swimming pool and shouting out instructions to swim from the side of the pool. If by some miracle the kid makes it to the other side, the kid will say “I don’t know how I did that but I sure don’t want to do that again.”

Which, I don’t think, is the result these people are after, but there you are.

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4 thoughts on “Articles I Never Finished Reading, Dept.

  1. As you indicate these approaches are classical, and have their place in instruction, and have always had as long as people alive today can remember. We certainly did “applications” in math class, projects in arts and socials classes, and labs were a mainstay of science class since I first took the subject as a practical discipline in Grade 8. That was back in 1972, and it was no grand innovation at the time. The labs we learned in were old enough that the equipment was in disrepair and we had several generations of things like bunsen burners and glassware — you could see the changes in style and workmanship in the different equipment on the shelves. The cupboards in the back room were full of equipment that had been used in projects many years earlier, and were covered with dust.

    I dislike this attitude some have that suggests there’s anything new about integrating projects and applications into learning. It was very old when I was a child … and I’m very old. No teacher alive today saw the introduction of these approaches to public schools in North America.

    But the historical fictions they attach to this conceit do some real harm. Here I don’t just mean that they badly portray some excellent teaching and teachers who’ve been in the schools for many generations, and that they colour all their predecessors with the worst caricatures that you’d be hard pressed to find even a few from those generations who fit the mold. It is that they so easily discard the cumulative wisdom of generations of master teachers, so blithely discard developed instructional systems and resources which have not been proven faulty, with nothing to replace them but seat-of-the-pants innovations. They think they are part of some brilliant new revolution, but they have burned the plans to the wheel, and are trying to reinvent it from scratch.

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  2. “Wetherington said students in STEM-focused classrooms outperformed their peers in traditional classrooms by 11 percent in algebra, 13 percent in geometry and nine percent in biology. But he said performance was also reflected in engagement, and district officials saw significant gains in motivation and self-advocacy.”

    Are these students at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology charter high school (gsmst.org), or are they compared to those traditionally-taught students? Is this program for middle schools for accelerated algebra, geometry, and biology classes in the hopes they can be better prepared for GSMST? We won’t find out from this article, and my search online came up with little. It could be a middle school attempt to properly prepare kids for GSMST(which probably highlighted the low expectations of K-8), but what traditional classrooms were they compared against? That would be like saying that students on a higher-track STEM path are smarter and work harder than regular students – even if they are taught with hand puppets. Besides, do they really (!) have traditionally taught STEM math classes in K-8 to compare against? I found no math information for the middle schools.

    My guess is that this program is a K-8 attempt to fix the now obvious low expectations and lack of preparation for students who want to go GSMST. Unfortunately, they get it completely wrong and choose an approach that differs from the traditional AP track classes at GSMST. They see only what they want to see. They define a STEM track which attracts the best students with the most helpful parents and then the compare it with “traditional” versions of what, a STEM track of Pre-algebra in 7th grade and a proper algebra I class in 8th? We have no idea of what the 11 and 13 percent are improvements over. Did they really have two separate, but equal tracks and students to compare? It’s not believable.

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  3. “The Brookwood Cluster Schools have embarked on an exciting STEAM education initiative that promotes integrated instruction in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. Although the implementation of the STEAM initiative may vary depending on the specific school, our cluster’s common vision promotes a cohesive goal. The Brookwood Cluster STEAM Program is dedicated to creating a learning environment that is authentic, rigorous, problem-based and cross-curricular. Additionally, the STEAM Program provides K-12 opportunities for application, exploration and innovation in order to prepare well-rounded students for an ever-changing technological world.”

    “Throughout the school day, STEAM students engage in problem-based instruction, special projects and multidisciplinary study focused on STEAM and integrated with other subjects. The program provides students with rigorous instruction measured through authentic, performance-based assessments. It also offers opportunities at all grade levels for participation in STEAM clubs and competitions such as Science Olympiad, Witzzle Pro, Science Fair, Robotics, Hour of Code and Math Olympiad. Through increased business and community partnerships, our hope is to provide our students with a glimpse of STEAM careers through real-world, project based learning, speakers, field trips and other activities during and after school hours.”

    “Authentic?” Rigorous?”

    Only in their dreams.

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  4. These schools not only offer after-school clubs and competitions, but change all in-class learning to this same project-based approach. They call this “authentic” and claim that it’s rigorous even though there is no proof that it actually creates STEM-prepared students and it’s not what high schools (look at GMST) and colleges do. Many traditional high schools offer after school clubs and competitions, so what is the benefit of making project-based learning the entire learning process, especially when descriptions of how it works are always so vague and out-of-context of a larger curriculum? PBL seems to be dominated by mixed-ability student-led in-class projects where many students can hide or do little work. Good students HATE group projects. Even if they used individual projects (is there such a thing for PBL?), project or goal-based learning creates a vocational hacking learning environment. While there might be some engagement with getting things done in an incremental, goal-based process where project deadlines and pushing might seem nicer (?) than with homework and tests, why does that have to define both in-class and after-school learning? How are basic individual skills and content developed and ensured?

    When my son and I went to MIT for an open house session for potential applicants, they got really weird about “hacking” and even rhetorically asked what the applicants would “hack.” This was after they made a big deal about how students turned the tall Green Building into a large Tetris game (first done at Brown), and of course, the police car (not a real car) that was placed on top of the dome is now enshrined in the Stata Center. Hacking is a meme developed by MIT, but of course, all of that hacking is built on top of traditional AP classes in high schools and traditional classes at MIT with very difficult individual P-sets. Hacking at MIT is like an after-school project or competition.

    I’m a huge fan of incremental prototyping in computer science, but I don’t advocate learning data structures or algorithms by deadline-based project hacking. You go on the web and Google what others have done for the Science Olympiad Scrambler contest and do some variation. You don’t discover new things. You just copy and vary a tiny little bit. Some think this defines modern web-based education, but it’s just vocational school hacking. This is not properly learning a broad base of knowledge and skills in a subject. This is made into something horribly wrong in some STEAM approaches where educators think that all K-8 students need to assume specialist roles like in real life – “authentic.” This is absolute nonsense.

    For those parents who might be reading this (hopefully when their child is in K-6 and before it’s too late), don’t take my word for all of this. Ask the parents of the best students what they did at home and how they pushed in the NO-REAL-STEM K-6 world. Success is rarely ever achieved without parents now having to do a lot more that what my parents had to do. All of my son’s STEM college friends talk about how their parents ensured mastery of content and basic skills. Ask us. We’re not helicopter parents who turn our kids into good-grade zombies. In my case, helping stopped completely when he got to his traditional high school honors and AP classes.

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