Response to John Merrow’s advocacy of Project-based Learning

John Merrow has started a series of posts advocating project based learning.

I just posted the following to his website:

Last Week, Water. This Week, AIR. (The Series Continues)


It’s disappointing to see you disparaging the teaching of factual information: “I also endorsed project-based learning because it demands that students become producers of knowledge, not mere regurgitators of canned information.” That sounds too much like dismissal of objective knowledge, the shared human knowledge that makes this and any communication possible.

Perhaps you are criticizing requiring students to learn inaccurate or biased information or mere opinions as facts; if so, please say so.

Or maybe you’re really criticizing misuse of standardized tests with no consequences for students, but used to hold schools, i.e. their teachers, “accountable” for student performance to justify firing teachers and closing schools or transferring them to charters. If so, you should make that clear.

Maybe you’re criticizing students getting information from online searches and social media sources. Or maybe you’re thinking of teachers handing out work sheets. Or even teachers unprepared to teach the content subjects they’re required to teach.

But it really sounds like a blanket dismissal of instruction by competent teachers of subject information, i.e. facts in context, and promoting in its place performance-based, project-based, discovery, inquiry, student-produced learning, etc. as the only genuine learning. They sound good but lack evidence of effectiveness in comparison to teacher directed instruction, which you actually acknowledge in passing.

The projects you describe (water quality, air quality, etc.) are fine as projects after students have basic knowledge with which to study them and the teacher has done dry runs to make sure the project will illuminate the teacher’s or district’s learning goals. In your water-quality example, you write that, after students had taken their water samples, “[Students] would need to know how to interpret readings, which would require some basic science research and direct instruction from their teacher.”

“Basic science research” may sound “basic” or simple, but even at a “basic” level it requires a number of steps, which, as you write, require direct instruction – of facts and procedures – by “their teacher.” How will the teacher know that each student knows the facts and procedures of “Basic science research” before attempting to apply it to a water or air study? Probably by a written test developed by the teacher or the district. Since “Basic science research” consists of an objective set of steps, an objective test would be an efficient measure of students’ mastery and of the teacher’s time.

And you don’t dismiss this learning as “regurgitating canned information.” Now that’s interesting.

And, by the way, this is also part of the overall goal of developing students’ mastery of the written language, And, by the way, this is also part of the overall goal of developing students’ m.stery of our written language in all subject areas.

Erich Martel

Retired DCPS h.s. history teacher

Here is one source on the AFT website:

“Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction” by Kirschner, Sweller, Clark:

This entry was posted in constructivism, Curriculum & Instruction, Education journalism, Erich Martel, K-12, science, STEM. Bookmark the permalink.

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