This was originally supposed to be a simple reply to Aviva Dunsiger’s blog post. I soon realized it would have been too short and thus I could have been easily misunderstood.
It all started with my question: “How do these projects enable deeper thinking?”, question that I asked after seeing her students’ work. Briefly the sequence of activities was the following:
1. Students brainstormed questions to guide their research on natural phenomena.
2. In groups of 2-3 they would write a poem using onomatopoeia and personification in the context of their natural phenomenon.
3. Last, they would create artwork that showed the natural phenomenon they researched about.
At first glance, this is an interesting and engaging chain of activities. Yet, to me, the over-arching question was missing. To what end? What was the understanding the teacher wanted the students to have? How does each of the three activities help build a central powerful idea about natural phenomena?
I realized then that we adhere to different instruction theories: project-based vs. concept-driven learning. On the surface, many can mistake one for the other, especially since both use inquiry as a vehicle to construct understanding.
It is, if you wish, the distinction that Carl Bereiter made when he talked about shallow vs. deep constructivism:
The shallowest forms engage students in tasks and activities in which ideas have no overt presence but are entirely implicit. Students describe the activities they are engaged in (e.g., planting seeds, measuring shadows) and show little awareness of the underlying principles that these tasks are to convey.
Unfortunately, much of what is currently promoted and practiced under the label of “project-based learning” does not fit this definition but instead represents the traditional “project” or research report dressed up in modern technology.

When some project-based engagements *do* have a set of questions (formulated either by the teacher or by the students) another element undermines them – the insistent focus on the outcome:

The original question “drives” a process that is directed toward the production of a concrete artifact—a report, a performance, a model, a letter to the city council, or whatever. This provides closure for the project but, unfortunately, it also gives closure to the advancement of knowledge. In some instances, pursuit of the “driving question” gets completely derailed as students’ attention focuses on producing the “authentic artifact”.

Moreover, because the focus becomes on the artifact (i.e. building a tornado model), the time spent on tangential activities (cutting, gluing, coloring etc.) increases, leaving little room for thinking deeply about the topic.

As Grant Wiggins mentioned in his book Understanding by Design:
“In the absence of overarching questions, students are left with rhetorical questions in a march through coverage or activities.”

So what do I mean by “thinking deeply” about a topic? I mean engaging students in constructing big ideas from the facts they learn – research is critical but not enough. It is a means to a greater picture. Facts should provide the basis for even more interesting questions and provocations that would help not only solidify the knowledge gained, but also build a frame of understanding with tools that are relevant to the discipline.
Incidentally, my 2nd graders (and second-language learners) were engaged in a somewhat similar inquiry on natural phenomena. We did not spend time on hands-on activities except when they were important (i.e. measuring air pressure, temperature, conducting experiments etc.), but kept inquiring deeper into the topic. Question stems enabled them to add to their initial rather closed questions (i.e. How many countries experience drought?)

What would happen if…?
Why….?
How…?
In what ways….?
Does….always happen when….?
If……then why….?
Is it possible to…?
Does it matter if….?
Can….?
Why is that….?
Why is….important?
What effect does…..have on….?
How would….change if…..?
How important is….for…?
How different….would be if….?
Who can…?
What is the relationship between….and …?
Where…?
When does….?
Should we….?
Could we…?

They soon realized that in order to understand weather phenomena they needed even more knowledge: about the Earth’s tilt, atmosphere, climate vs. weather etc. Throughout their inquiry I, too:

– kept posing questions to challenge their thinking (i.e.”Is it always true? How do you know?”)

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– used anticipation guides (see example above) and diagnostic questions to check misconceptions (side note – if you didn’t know, even Harvard graduates when interviewed had no clue that it is the Earth’s tilt that influences season formation not its rotation around the Sun)

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– conducted discipline-based experiments (see above- experiment for air currents)

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– used experts to discuss extreme natural phenomena (above – Mr. David Karnoscak, tornado-chaser) etc.

 

All these bits and pieces led the students to deepen knowledge about natural phenomena, to ask increasingly refined questions, and build the “big picture”. You can see from the complexity of their concept map that they could deal with the main concepts I wanted to guide them to: Causation and Connection. They could notice cause-effect relationships between extreme natural phenomena and wider contexts – economy, transportation, health-and safety, communication and so forth. Moreover, they could understand the connections between say transportation (i.e. when a tornado damages roads) and health/safety (i.e. emergency vehicles do not reach the destination in time).

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Even during the research phase they used concepts (i.e. Function) to guide their learning alongside questions.
Moreover, due to the idea of “pattern” that they noticed the students used mathematics during this inquiry. They were “weather reporters” and reported to class the daily weather – we graphed our observations, analyzed them and discussed any emergent patterns. This daily activity also enabled them to constantly use discipline-specific vocabulary (“humidity”, “temperature”, “air pressure” etc.), and this language component is critical to reinforce knowledge (I also took videos of the kids presenting and embedded them on the class blog – it is an assessment tool for oral language for me as a teacher, a way to show parents how their children are doing in oral communication, and a way for class community to share learning).

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*NOTE
If you are against cumulative knowledge, we might need to argue over that.
To give a simple example from this inquiry into weather, I will quote two of my 2nd graders (I take anecdotal records many a time so the dialogue below is accurate). We were discussing about our concept map above. All of a sudden…

Kid 1:“Wait! When we inquired earlier into states of matter, I learned that the colder it is the closer the molecules are.”
Kid 2: “So what?”
Kid 1: “Well, I think the rail tracks can shrink when it is too cold. Like, you know, when you have really really low temperatures.” (he turns to me) “Am I right?”
As you can imagine I could only smile and nod.
Kid 1 (proudly): “That means the trains will go slower.”
Kid 2 (somewhat enlightened): “And how is that connected to our map?”
Kid 1: “Can’t you see? Transportation is affected. So people might get less food or fuel or whatever the train carries – that means their daily life is harder.”
This kind of conversations remind me how right I am for students to have knowledge. The more, the better connections they can make. The deeper the understanding. The bigger the picture.
And I keep being in awe at the knowledge they can manipualte at 7 – from how air pressure works to magnetism, lightning and whatnot.
DO NOT underestimate them.
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As you can notice, the differences between these two types of constructivist approaches are minimal on the surface but large underneath. I prefer concept-driven learning because it allows for deep understanding and it minimizes the interference of low-level activities (as mentioned, gluing and all). There is always a trade-off – a loss and a gain- in any instructional approach, and that makes me think twice before I plan. Remember: TO WHAT END?

*NOTE 2:

Every time I plan I have in mind 3 questions. What should students:

KNOW (facts, terminology etc.)

DO (take-notes, write a recipe, conduct an experiment etc.)

UNDERSTAND (I use different ways to assess understanding since learning and performance are not the same thing – learning journals, conceptual grids, reflection papers etc.)

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References:

Learning to Work Creatively With Knowledge, Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia

Knowledge Building,  Encyclopedia of Education,Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C., Second Edition, New York

Learning versus Performance, Nicholas C. Soderstrom and Robert A. Bjork

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