Some of the Messy Parts of learning – Or What We Did After Testing

ground.bmp Diatoms, 3500x magnification, taken with scanning electron microscope, University of Nevada, Reno – by John Kevin McCormack

When I was first exposed to the idea of having students do project work, I remember the presenters saying that it was the process that was important, not the product. I agree, the process is huge to what students get from learning through doing. It’s so huge that your plan for the project can’t hold, can’t hope to preconceive all the kinds of learning that will happen. In fact when you get to the end of a project the more learning that happened in ways you didn’t expect the more jazzed and fulfilled the students and you are. I call it “The Glow.” When you step back from doing or making something that comes out particularly well and you are beaming and can feel your face kind of heat up – that’s “The Glow.”

I’ve found that educators that embrace project-based, problem-based learning the first time they see it – get it because they see the learning and the implications for learning right away. Those that have to be sold repeatedly on its merits don’t see all the pieces without a guide.

To make our recent science video (Stickleback Fossils) there were many, many pieces.

How much background information about fossils do you teach directly, and how much do you leave for discovery? I would much rather students discover, but discovery often takes more time, and time was not what we had. It took seven months to make our video according to the calendar, but that was because we were “On-hold” much of the time to do the “mandatory” pieces we are required to do. Thankfully we do seem to be moving away slightly from the reading groups and math groups all-the-time approach, so next year I’m hoping to get to project work on a more consistent basis. So we did some intense book learning for several days about the “Who, what, where, when, and why,” of fossils.

Next we brainstormed and discussed what the important parts that should be in our video if the goal was that it teach others about fossils, but also specifically about the fossils we found. After that we broke down our thinking into 7 scenes that needed to be produced, and brainstormed ideas as individuals, groups and whole class on what each scene could look like – I do this because students seem to buy into the project better if they have a “feel” for how the whole thing will look AND it exposes them to thinking about what they are supposed to be learning about in one more way – and it gives you another chance as a teacher to observe and fill-in, correct and expand on student thinking and understanding of the content.

I randomly assigned each group of students in class a scene and gave them the class brainstorm on chart paper. They can choose to use one of the ideas the class came up with or come up with a new idea if they’d like to – what I find is they usually use one of the ideas or tweak one of the ideas already generated. Now they do the research, storyboarding, script writing, prop gathering and making, location scouting and everything else required for their scene. While this is happening I wander around the room observing and listening and answering questions and clarifying and keeping a few on track. In a case like this where we had to fast-track things a bit I did jump in more than I like to and helped some groups pick suitable materials for making something instead of having them do the trial and error part – which is too bad – that’s one of the great messy parts of this kind of learning.

Now I want to come back to my first sentence about the process being important and not the product. I’m going to disagree with that statement. The process is very important and can be worthwhile learning on its own. But to me the quality of the final product, the polish, the struggle to get the product as close to its highest potential as possible is also very important. What message are we giving to students if their process is great but we always walk away with an attitude that teaches that the product would have been great, but we don’t have the time to get it there. I disagree – lots of times getting there finds the problems and is the greatest challenge to overcome. The sound on our video is sub-par. We knew it and I would have loved to have the students help figure out how to get it more consistent. We tweaked it well enough in the short time we had (we recorded over half the voiceovers the last three days of school). The transitions between scenes aren’t terrible, but they could be better. If my students were back this week we would be looking at those things and figuring them out. Isn’t that “Real World” production? That’s polish and making something as good as it can be, or as good as it can be with your current resources and knowledge and it’s a step I believe we too often leave out.

In the end though I believe the students met their major goal of producing a video that would become a resource for them and others around the world to learn about fossils and geologic processes. Watch it and let me know what you think.

Learning is messy!

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