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Pendulum swings over best approach to teaching

By John Published: May 13, 2010

By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer

The idea of project-based learning — the ''hands-on'' teaching approach Akron's new National Inventors Hall of Fame middle school has embraced — has its roots in the earliest years of the last century.

It's often contrasted with the more traditional lecture-style method of teaching specific facts from history, literature, the arts and other classic subjects that society has decided all educated people should know.

Maryann Wolowiec, who has coordinated the development of Akron's new middle school, has seen the pendulum swing a few times between these two approaches.

She remembers curriculum from the 1970s purposely designed to give students the facts they needed regardless of the teachers' skills.

It was kind of like a cookbook: All the teachers had to do was follow the recipe.

''They used to call it in the 1970s 'teacher-proof materials,' '' Wolowiec said.

In the mid- to late-1980s, the pendulum swung toward project-based learning, which requires a high degree of teaching skill to respond to the motivations of the students without losing sight of the educational goals.

Possibility for failure

But Wolowiec also saw the approach fail because sometimes projects became ends unto themselves rather than a means to learning.

''A big, big complaint was that kids were having a lot of fun,'' Wolowiec said.

But were they actually learning anything, and how would you ever know without some kind of standardized testing?

''I'll give you an example that I actually saw happen — language arts, seventh grade,'' she said. ''They spent weeks creating pop-up books.''

But the project was not connected to any kind of learning standards.

''It wasn't about the writing, reading,'' Wolowiec said. ''It was all measured on how cute their pop-up book was.''

Parents went nuts over that kind of thing all over the country and the pendulum swung back in the 1990s. State standards and proficiency exams culminated in the high-stakes tests of the federal No Child Left Behind reforms.

Best of both worlds

Akron is modeling its approach on what other schools have done successfully with problem-based learning: align the teaching methods with the content standards the state demands, Wolowiec said.

''What we're trying do is the best of both,'' she said. ''Now I can give them the same lab, but now they're paying attention because they need that information to solve a problem. There can be direct instruction. In fact, I'm sure there will be direct instruction. There's going to be times when you pull kids aside. It's not an either/or.''

The debate has taken many forms over the years in ''reading wars'' (phonics versus whole language) and ''math wars'' (computational ability versus conceptual understanding) that often flare up when districts choose new textbooks.

Skeptics say project-based learning is a fad that's been recycled periodically since the early 1900s in some guise or another.

The latest iteration promotes the teaching of ''21st-century skills'' such as critical thinking, problem solving and communicating with multimedia computer technology, according to Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University.

''For the past century, our schools of education have obsessed over critical-thinking skills, projects, cooperative learning, experiential learning, and so on,'' Ravitch wrote in an opinion piece published this fall in the Boston Globe and other newspapers. ''But they have paid precious little attention to the disciplinary knowledge that young people need to make sense of the world.''

Ravitch is co-chairman of Common Core, an organization that champions teaching a core curriculum in traditional liberal arts subjects, including history, literature and the arts.

In October, Ohio became the 14th state to join the ''State Leadership Initiative'' of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a national organization advocating the integration of those abilities into core subjects, which already is happening at Akron's new middle school.

Choosing one

Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychology professor at the University of Virginia, said that project-based learning is an approach that many teachers learn about in colleges of education as the ideal.

But in practice, he said, few teachers use it in the classroom because of the enormous demands it places on the teachers' skills, time and attention.

He said he's often asked what kind of school he would want for his own children.

''If it were guaranteed that it was good, I'd rather have them in project-based, but I think it's incredibly difficult to pull off,'' Willingham said. However, if it's a choice between a mediocre traditional classroom with teachers giving lectures and quizzes or a mediocre project-based learning classroom, he'd go with the boring traditional way.

''I would much rather have my kid in a halfway OK, direct-instruction class than a halfway OK project-based learning class,'' Willingham said. If project-based learning is not done right, the time is simply wasted and the kids learn nothing, he said.

He'll get no argument in Akron about that.

''I totally agree with him,'' Wolowiec said. ''This is where teacher quality is a huge issue. Everything comes down to what goes on in the classroom when the teacher closes the door.''

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or



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