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Project Based Learning for All

We missed the science fair. The school posted on their communication app announcements about science fair displays being set up, and how it was open to families to come and check them out. They posted a list of the top 10 projects, and smiling pictures of the winners of the fair along with what their projects were about. When I saw, I thought, “why didn’t I know about it?” So I went on a search to see if they had posted information about it or sent home guidelines. They had…sort of. There was one post on their communication system over a month ago about the science fair and when it would be. Students had to let their teacher know that they wanted an information packet in order to be included. So if a parent happened to miss the single memo the school posted, the kid missed out on an awesome learning opportunity. He was allowed to participate in the science fair, but the hurdle was that an 11 year old kid had to take the initiative to do so. Some might. Most won’t. Mine didn’t.

My first question is this: why was the science fair some exclusive event that only some kids got the opportunity to participate in? I actually know the answer to this one. As a teacher myself, I know very well that making a project like that mandatory is only going to result in failure. Some kids truly don’t have the ability at home to accomplish a project like that outside of school. They may lack the parental support because mom or dad has to work and can’t help; or parents may not feel like they have the ability to help because they never had an opportunity like this and don’t know where to start; or maybe their family doesn’t have the money to spare on special projects outside of school. There are many, many reasons why a school might not require all students to complete a science fair project.

This leads me to my second question: why not have the kids complete a science fair style project in science class? I actually know the answer to that one too. The traditional school environment is not equipped to accommodate such an endeavor.

  • The curriculum is adopted by the school and teachers are expected to follow it because the school paid for it. This doesn’t allow much room for exploratory projects during the school day when you have to move from one topic to the next in a certain amount of time.

  • The day is segmented and there is a change of activity every hour, which is not very conducive to multiple students exploring different projects– that takes extended, unstructured time. (Both in the day and in the curriculum.)

  • Student work must be assessed and grades required. Sure a project can be graded, but a grade does not capture what a kid learns through the process of doing the project, and prioritizes the grade over the actual learning. (See this post for my thoughts on traditional grades)

  • There are too many kids in not enough space. To allow students to all engage in different, self directed projects, there must be space for them to spread out and conduct experiments, make messes, and mistakes. 20-30 kids in a typical size classroom requires a level of order that just cannot be achieved if students are all working like this.

I remember doing the science fair when I was a kid. I was not particularly science minded, but I got the opportunity to engage in the scientific method. I learned to ask a question, make a hypothesis, design an experiment (and sometimes redesign it if it didn’t work), reevaluate my hypothesis, and draw a conclusion. I don’t remember what all my science projects were about, but through doing them I learned how to figure things out– an invaluable skill that so many kids are missing because they don’t get the opportunity. The result? Kids who miss the science fair only get the boring part of school– the part that it is devoid of context (and, let’s be honest, fun). Therefore, they believe that school is boring and has no meaning or value for them. In reality, they are not failing at school, school is failing them.

Project based learning provides meaningful and fun opportunities for kids to practice valuable skills. It should not be a supplement to the curriculum, available only to the “top” kids, it should BE the curriculum. If traditional schools cannot accommodate this practice, then we need to step outside the bounds of tradition to do something new. I say project based learning for all!

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