Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Project Manifesto

OK, as a parent of two school-age children and as a teacher myself, I'm drawing a line in the sand: these projects are crazy.  So two questions:  first, what's the point of assigning student projects?  And what are some "best practices" in incorporating those?

A great project gives the student the opportunity to...

  1. Use (and improve) skills acquired in class. 
  2. Explore and learn about a subject in depth.
  3. Display his or her knowledge and thinking in ways that go beyond short essays and paper-and-pencil classwork (tests, quizzes, etc.)--in particular, to illuminate connections and relationships he or she has made/noticed himself/herself.
  4. Exert some freedom of choice in subject matter and presentation.
  5. Perhaps most important:  produce a complex artifact independently.
What drives me crazy is the project that takes place entirely out-of-class, with no clear connection to skills acquired in class, and without enough structure that a student working independently can produce anything independently.  A few examples:
  • An "author's chapbook" of original poetry, in a class in which no poetry has been produced, or even read.
  • A research project on local history, in a class in which students have spent literally no time doing actual history research.
  • A first-grade "design your own city" project, with four single-spaced pages of instructions (but no rubric).
No, none of those were made up.  And so the student work produced is either pretty mediocre or nonexistent:  the project is almost completely structured by the parents.  Woe betide the child whose parents don't know how to do history research themselves, and who can't get their child into a decent library with dedicated reference librarians who can help the child to do the research.

I'm not saying that all parental involvement in projects is bad, but we need to be careful, for two reasons.  First, parental involvement is a highly regressive "tax":  kids whose parents don't have the personal, intellectual, or financial capital to give "help" are penalized in grades (and a general feeling of inadequacy).  Second, parental involvement deprives the child of the most important long-term benefits of projects, namely, the experience of organizing and creating an original and important-to-them object that cannot be done in a single sitting.  It's worth noting that parental involvement quickly turns into an arms race:  it's hard for any parent to look at wall full of slick, parentally-lettered posters, and see his son's scrawled poster as the marvel of independent effort that it is.  And when a parent is faced with a child working on a project for which he or she has NOT been given the required skills and context in class, what's that parent to do?  Just say "figure it out as best you can?"

So what "best practices" do these suggest?  I have a few modest proposals
  1. The project should not require any skills or background knowledge not taught as part of the ordinary curriculum in that school in that year or prior years.

    Obviously, the experience of doing a research project is going to improve kids' abilities to find information, write expository paragraphs, and cite sources--IF they have a basic grounding in those skills in the first place.  Otherwise, it's more like handing a kid a bicycle who doesn't know how to ride at all, and saying "meet me at the campsite 10 miles up the road."  A few kids will make it to camp before dark.  The others will call their parents with the minivan.

    Specific examples of skills that need to be taught in these projects
    - Fiction and poetry writing -- unless you really think that every creative piece is as good as every other.
    - Discipline-specific research skills, including data analysis for science projects.
    - Experimental design for science projects.
  2. The instructions for the project should be at a reading level appropriate to (at least) the top 2/3 of the class.

    If the kids can't read the instructions themselves, how are they going to get any work done independently?  This one is a no-brainer.
  3. The project should be broken into checkpoints.  Work required between checkpoints should be no more than 2-3 ordinarily nightly homework assignments' worth per checkpoint, at least until upper high school.

    Kids, even little kids, can structure their own time, but they need help and teaching.  I think a reasonable balance between self-structuring and total supervision is two or three nights' worth of homework.  For example, if a typical nightly homework assignment might be to write a single paragraph, a one-week checkpoint on a project might be to write three paragraphs.  That way, the kids have to think about when and how they will get the work done--self-structuring--but will not be slammed with an insane amount of work if they screw up the structuring.  We all want our kids to learn from their mistakes, but reducing the penalty to something manageable means we can all let the kids live through the consequences.  If a kid is given five weeks to do a massive paper with no checkpoints, and puts it off to the end, it's going to be hard to stand back and watch the kid fail the entire project (or stay up until 2am getting it done).  So then the parent winds up doing the work, which teaches the kid ... to procrastinate?
  4. Kids should get meaningful feedback at each checkpoint, and the opportunity to revise that work for later.

    Again, a no-brainer.  When my child got dinged at Science Fair for incorrectly stating the hypothesis (didn't use "If ... then ... " form), what bothered me was not the requirement, but the fact that the VERY SAME hypothesis had been submitted months earlier -- and approved.

    Writing teachers say that the best way to learn to write is to revise.  So why have students hand in a final draft without incorporating the experience of revision?
  5. Project assignment sheets should state explicitly the amount of time estimated to complete the project well, and the amount and kind of parental involvement expected.

    Every Federal form has a statement at the bottom that says how much time the issuing agency expects it will take to fill out the form.  Projects should be the same way.  At least, this process would force teachers to ask themselves "how much am I really asking of my students?"  And by giving parents explicit guidelines about what and how much they should be doing, you can help parents who WANT to do the right thing, and maybe give a reality check to overzealous parents about what the child should be able to do independently.
What do I do as a parent?  As little as possible: the most important part for me is that my child have the experience of accomplishing something complex and challenging independently.  Specifically:
  • With my younger child, in first and second grade, we would sit down with the project description and break the project into stages (checkpoints), making a checklist my child could use without my help.
  • With my younger child, I would type work as requested, but I didn't edit.  (Now both children type their own work.)
  • With my older child, I've had to step in to teach research strategies and skills (like: write the bibliography info of the source at the top of each page of notes, so you know what came from where).
  • For science fair projects, I've helped design experiments about issues the children have come up with, and in one case, I taught some background mathematics. 
  • But my older child is fiercely independent about schoolwork--just the way I like it--so I'm usually not involved at all.
Tell me: what did I overlook?  What's your favorite project horror story?  Tell me in the comments.