05 February 2008

Motivate students with project based learning

Imagine a classroom where students use real world examples to illustrate understanding of core concepts.

In project-based learning, students try to answer a question -- one that has relevance for them -- that is greater than the immediate task at hand. In its book Connecting the Bits, the NEA Foundation for the Improvement of Education gives the example of students at a Kentucky elementary school conducting surveys, doing research, building models, and taking field trips with the goal of determining the best kind of new bridge to build over the Ohio River.

Students conduct research using a variety of sources, from the Internet to interviews with experts. They work on the project over an extended period of time -- six weeks or more -- because of the in-depth nature of the investigation. Like adults trying to solve a problem, they don't restrict themselves to one discipline but delve into math, literature, history, science -- whatever is appropriate to the study.

Seymour Papert, renowned expert on children and computing, why students are turned off by school, and he quickly offers an example:

"We teach numbers, then algebra, then calculus, then physics. Wrong!" exclaims the Massachusetts Institute of Technology mathematician and pioneer in Artificial Intelligence. "Start with engineering, and from that abstract out physics, and from that abstract out ideas of calculus, and eventually separate off pure mathematics. So much better to have the first-grade kid or kindergarten kid doing engineering and leave it to the older ones to do pure mathematics than to do it the other way around."

In a growing number of schools, educators are echoing Papert's assertion that engaging students by starting with the concrete and solving hands-on, real-world problems is a great motivator. Ultimately, they say, such project-based learning that freely crosses disciplines provides an education superior to the traditional "algebra at age nine, Civil War at ten, Great Expectations at eleven" structure.

I realize that enthusiasm alone isn't enough of a justification to advocate project-based learning, but the results of that enthusiasm argue in its favor, say educators and researchers who have studied or used project-based learning.

Some information for this article was obtained at Edutopia.


Henry Borenson, Ed.D. said...

The ideas of firing up students with learning that is of interest to them is right on. Generally speaking, arithmetic such as long division, multiplying 3-digit numbers by 4-digit numbers (if anyone still does that) will not inspire too many students.

Yet,students must often go through all of these loops before having an opportunity to experience algebra. We now know that 3rd,4th and 5th graders can easily be shown how to understand and solve algebraic linear equations such as 4x + 3 = 3x + 9, as well as how to solve verbal problems of various kinds, such as "If 1/3 of a number is increased by 12, the result is the same as 2/3 of the number, increased by 4. Find the number."

It is not true, for example, that students need to "master" fractions before being exposed to this kind of problem.

Actually, very little more than the definition of fractional parts is needed to solve the above problem. In any case students can work on computational skills at the same time they work with algebraic concepts.

Pappert uses the expression, "learning without being taught." An intuitive algebraic learning environment can enable grade school children to learn (often on their own) many key algebraic concepts, such as the subtraction property of equality and the distributive law.

Algebra IS a motivator! Especially so for grade school students when they experience success with what looks like advanced mathematics.

See the Verbal Problem of the Week section at www.borenson.com to get an idea of how young students use Hands-On Equations to solve algebraic verbal problems.

Shane Krukowski said...

Agreed. Too many folks look at rigor, student relationships and interest as opposing forces in education. Any good teacher knows, that if your allowed a chance to develop a good relationship with a student, everything becomes easier... classroom management.. attendance... motivation.

It often feels like we squeeze these out and end up creating other contrived, overly structured systems that attempt to solve that of what would be previously mitigated.

Good comments,

Shane Krukowski
Project-Based Learning Systems
Milwaukee, WI

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