When it comes to student participation in labs, projects, and activities, nothing kills a lesson like too much structure. One thing I have noticed when assigning lessons to my students is that too much structure and limited options spawn disinterest. About twelve years ago, I decided that I would break up the regular routine of my classroom lectures by having small groups of students research, develop and present material to the class. It was a nice project, but my guidelines killed their interest. Students covered topics I had selected and were required to present them in a PowerPoint. Students weren't allowed to pick topics of their own choosing and they weren't allowed to produce information the way they wanted. As a result, the lesson quickly turned NOT into a Science project, but a PowerPoint lesson. Students who were not familiar with the program required more time and instruction on how to use it. As well, they learned less about their science topic and more about PowerPoint.
When assigned a book report, poster project, or diorama, are students just regurgitating facts in the format we choose? Sometimes I feel the content gets left behind. I felt this way after this project, so as a result we quickly returned to our regular lecture (you know, the sage on the stage, kids taking notes, etc...). So should we abandon classroom projects? Not necessarily. I have always had the philosophy that people learn best by doing. Consequently, I often learn more about a topic when I have to explain it to someone else. But in the regular classroom, kids are not often given the time or the opportunity to "do" things. Specifically, many teachers stick to the tried and true methods of lecture and review because they feel they don't have time to create and assign projects to students. But I feel this may be a mistake. If we don't give children the opportunities to discover and learn things on their own, we are setting them up for failure.
Two web articles I read this week made me think back to my PowerPoint fiasco. Each of them specifically addresses the idea - now hold on to
your seats - that kids don't always need us. The first is an article about social studies teacher, Deven Black, who decided to see what would happen if he gave his students a greater role in deciding how to do their projects and on what topic they would report. The results were surprising to him in that he found his students didn't need him. Is there anything wrong with that? Not really. In essence, we all want our students to reach a level of independence, not dependence. Read his article "My One Great Lesson This Year" to learn more.
The second article comes from Edutopia and discusses "The 5 Features of Science Inquiry". In his article, Eric Brunsell discusses how Inquiry-Based Science needs to move from being Teacher-Driven to being truly inquiry-driven. We need to teach our students to ask the tough questions. Questions they may already have, but never ask because we have created a system where they wait for us to give them the answer. Read his article to find new ways to get students into the questioning mode.
One last note - these articles aren't meant to create disgust and make teachers feel like they will be expected to change their methods overnight. They are meant to get teachers thinking about the answers to questions they have about their students. "Why don't they get it?" or "How do I get them to understand?" Sometimes getting them to understand is as simple as creating interest and driving them to ask questions of their own - not answering questions on a worksheet.
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