What We Mean When We Say “Project.” i.e. Wizard-Muggle Genetics
[Pulp-fiction edit: Read this paper on genetics and the Harry Potter universe, and decide for yourself what you want students to be producing. A quick clarification: the author is not one of mine; I wish]
There are two competing constructs in my brain that try to inform my pedagogical decisions.1
I feel like I have to balance salvos between my project-based self and my more traditional classroom-contained self.
On one hand, I want students to make things that they want to keep. Things that are persistent beyond the classroom, things that represent a solution to a problem that’s real, wicked, or otherwise interesting to humanity in general.
On the other hand I have the nascent student brain; brains that have macheted an ever so slight path through the world, for example; one that has yet to convince itself that algebra always works.
How can they be expected to solve for the time-dependent function of a turkey’s temperature as it is fried to a crispy cafe-brown in 350-degree oil? Certainly they need to have some “background” knowledge before attempting such a delicious feat? (Perhaps not)
What’s a teacher to do?
I know that contained-classroom efforts often result with tepid products that rot on hard drives until the great summer-imaging takes them to the binary randomizer in the sky. I think to myself, “It’s ok, so that wasn’t the best presentation, they learned a lot.”
It’s their brains I want! That product is unmeasurable. Right? Right?!
However, when I think about motivating the brain–and what it’s connected to–I can’t help but always tend towards the concept of project-based learning.
I feel like one of those creepy Texas cave salamanders, ever-crawling in the dark looking for bigger and better sources of not-totally reduced carbon, always stumbling on the same guano and floor trappings.
I want my students’ projects to hum.2 I want projects that instruct as well as, um, produce. But I can’t sit here and lie to you, a lot of projects end up total crap.
It’s not the students’ faults, it’s the fault of the idea that a novice will be able to produce–without a budget–a functioning shower that recycles grey water.
I’m cool with it, I think. I suppose only because I’m just interested in what they learn and how they can communicate what they learned, how they connected it, and the reasons why their project is a bit lackluster. I’m totally cool with it, actually.
When I taught Biology last semester, I have to admit, I did a fairly terrible job. I love my students, and I love helping them learn, but my experiment involved handing students a list of standards, and had me issuing inspirational mini-talks, articles, ideas, and what-not in order to inspire projects with those standards. Something just didn’t click.
Here’s my take:
When students are engaged in something they find interesting (or just learned that they find interesting), as well as with one or more of the huge ideas from the course, and they’re aimed somewhere a bit loftier than Cornally’s one-shot biology block 3, I think you can see what we get. (for the visually impaired, a 2009-vintage unicorn-rainbow)
Defining the Die:
Needless to say, my Biology results were mixed. Some were truly inspired, others were just seeing what they needed to do to get me to check off a standard. What I really wanted was this, a genetic analysis of the wizarding gene (squibs and all that.)
Well, not that paper per se, but definitely things cut from the same die.
Out of the 800+ projects I assessed and conferenced, I would say about only 5 really hit the combo of learning, externally-pointedness, and personalization that I was looking for. The rest were cobbled PowerPoints (or similar ilk).
Did those 795 projects show learning? Yeah. Were they boring? Kinda. Did those students handle highly analytical questions about their content on the fly? Yes, but.
I mean, c’mon, Harry Potter genetics? Now that has curb appeal.
I’d love to hear about how you coaxed more-than-glitter projects from your students. Specific examples, please!
1. Sorry about using the prefix pedagog-, but, honestly, I just love the string “agog”. You could say, I’m agog for “agog.”
2. Like 90 psi street-bike tires at 25 mph.