kitchen table math, the sequel: President Obama has a really bad idea

Sunday, July 7, 2013

President Obama has a really bad idea

President Obama recently visited a school that "relies 100 percent on project-based learning." Not just visited, lauded.


Apparently the White House is launching a "High School Redesign" initiative, which appears to be supported by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Boards of Education:
Today's global economy requires new approaches to teaching and learning in America's high schools to foster problem solving and analysis, to support creativity and collaboration, and to connect student learning directly to the real world. Students learn best when they are engaged in complex projects and tasks aligned with their interests and when they work with others through practical examples and case studies that engage them in rigorous academics and in the application of knowledge.
Fact Sheet: Redesigning America's High Schools
Manor New Technology High School, a 100% project-based school, is cited as one of five Promising Examples of Redesigned High Schools.

From the President's speech:
  • at Manor a history teacher might get together with a math teacher and develop a project about the impact of castles on world history and the engineering behind building castles
  • or a group of students might be in charge of putting together a multimedia presentation about the moral dilemmas in literature as applied to WWII
  • folks who use mathematical equations to build musical instruments
  • tests on bungee jumping with rubber bands and weights
  • robots that were being built
  • all kinds of great stuff
  • there's a lot of hands-on learning here
  • part of what makes this place special is that there's all this integration, various subjects and actual projects, and young people doing and not just sitting there listening
  • I could not be prouder of what's happening here at Manor

Help Desk: Project-Based Learning
High School Redesign Gets Presidential Lift
Smartbrief on How to Make Project-Based Learning Work
Tips for Transitioning to Project-Based Learning
Manor New Technology High School

The founder, chairman, and CEO of Netflix has a really bad idea
Larry Summers has a really bad idea
David Brooks has a really bad idea
David Brooks has a really bad idea, part 2
All is forgiven.

The good news


SteveH said...

So Obama has joined your "really bad idea" club. At least it's a charter school.

When our lower school changed from MathLand to Everyday Math, our state test scores improved. Unfortunately, people don't know how good school could be for many kids.

"Students learn best when they are engaged in complex projects and tasks aligned with their interests and when they work with others through practical examples and case studies that engage them in rigorous academics and in the application of knowledge."


Offer Lego League, Science Olympiad, Math Olympiad, Jazz Band, and on and on.

Before or after school.

These are single topic projects and they do not drive the entire learning process. They offer rigor and high expectations for those who self-select into the groups.

"...a history teacher might get together with a math teacher and develop a project about the impact of castles on world history and the engineering behind building castles.."

This is bad for history and it's bad for that other area they call engineering because they want to impress people. Forget the fact that Project Lead The Way will never get you into a school of engineering if you don't have top grades (and SAT scores) in math.

"...and young people doing and not just sitting there listening"

He drank from their Kool-Aid.

It all sounds so nice until you look at the details. You will see a LOT of direct teaching - because that's what gets the job done. Individual homework. A big defense of project-based learning is something to the effect that "Gee, it's not ALL project-based." Of course it isn't, but maybe they should do more direct teaching and fewer projects. In fact, I've had all sorts of projects during my traditional, direct instruction education. Art work, science projects, tri-fold displays, and large group term projects.

I wanted to see details, but there are none on their web site.

Crimson Wife said...

PBL can work well for a subset of bright, highly self-motivated learners. I've seen it among the homeschooled children of my acquaintance. But I don't think the typical student, even the typical bright kid, would do as well with it as with a more traditional approach.

palisadesk said...

PBL -- Part 1

PBL works at the professional level as well. I posted the following a few years ago at D-Ed REckoning but will recycle them here (the links still work), because one major problem in education is failure to distinguish what works where and for whom.

Problem-based learning is very successfully used at the professional school level, particularly in medicine. Starting with McMaster University med school in the '60's, which introduced the first completely PBL medical school curriculum (eliminating most lectures, specific courses in anatomy, pathology etc.), a number of medical schools (Southern Illinois University is one) have introduced PBL-based programs, due largely to the results: graduates scored significantly higher on the various licensing and competency exams, and got much higher performance ratings during their internships and residency periods.

Blogger is not letting me embed hyperlinks, so you have to cut and paste:

Some background info:

McMaster site:

Scholarly review:

View from inside the profession:

Of course this is a whole different matter than "problem based learning" with children (where it still has a place, but not as a replacement for direct teaching of needed skills and knowledge). However, for some applications, PBL is clearly an effective way to develop the needed competencies.

One should note, however, that medical students have already developed a wide range of knowledge, skills and work habits and the PBL challenge is likely effective and appropriate for that reason (among others).

palisadesk said...

PBL Part 2
But, in medicine, I get the impression that there's an awful lot of stuff that's been learned by empirical work over the centuries (eg different forms of diseases have been identified). How is this taught in pbl-schools?

In fact, the PBL medical program covers the needed material much more quickly (and apparently, based on competency testing of graduates, more thoroughly) than the traditional lecture and assignment-based program. Students complete the McMaster program in just under 3 years, as opposed to the 4 years in most traditional med schools.

For the "how" they do it, my information is mostly anecdotal. I have two good friends who are physicians. They don't know each other, but they have several significant points of similarity: both spent over a decade in other fields and were well established in their careers before deciding to go to medical school in their 30's. One went to McMaster, the other to a traditional-type medical school in Texas (I don't remember which one). Inevitably, since they are friends of mine, we spend time discussing education issues; both have shared their medical training with me in some detail.

As I understand it, the McMaster program is anchored in patient care from Day 1. Students do not attend many classes or lectures (in fact I am not sure there are any!); rather, they are assigned to a small group (6-8 IIRC) which meets and works together throughout the year -- maybe all 3 years (McMaster has a very low attrition rate, due perhaps to their extremely selective admissions and their preference for mature students -- late 20's to mid 40's -- who have already had successful work and life experience in other fields).

The group reports to the hospital and is assigned to a specific area -- pediatrics, pathology, whatever -- and makes rounds with staff, learns about individual cases, etc. What sequence of skills they are required to acquire I don't know, but the group is closely mentored, they are expected to work and study together (there is plenty of assigned reading and research, but virtually all related to their hospital placement and cases). They have many assignments, individual and collective, they learn practical skills like inserting IV's and taking histories early on, are expected to learn how to independently search medical databases for the most up-to-date information on relevant topics (dialysis, specific pharmaceuticals, whatever).

According to the research I read about it (as well as my friend's experience), the program develops a widely competent practitioner who is a skilled independent learner -- vitally important in a field as quickly changing as medicine -- and a lot of interpersonal skills, ability to communicate and negotiate, etc --also urgent today where the "Lone Ranger" physician is an anomaly. The fact that most of the learning is attached to real cases and situations probably makes the vast amount of factual material medical students must absorb better integrated and accessible, since it is in context and related to multiple factors.

In addition to their group hospital work, students also had placements in private clinics or practices, again from very early on (whereas some traditional programs do not provide a lot of practicum experience in the first 2 years). Another advantage, from the student's point of view, is that the intense immersion in a variety of settings makes it easier to identify what specialty or line of practice s/he is best suited for. Many "Mac" graduates have gone on to international prominence in their chosen specialties.

palisadesk said...

PBL part 3

My friend who attended a traditional program also did very well, but the lack of practical experience delayed her ultimate specialization. She initially went into surgery (it was quite competitive getting into a residency in that specialty) and it took a year for her to realize that this was not what she really wanted to do, despite her success. She managed to change programs but I believe this delayed her training for one more year. Ultimately she qualified as a clinical pathologist and headed the department in a hospital out west.

Both systems obviously produce qualified and capable doctors. However, the PBL system does seem uniquely suited to a certain demographic: highly competent, independent, mature and self-disciplined people who want to be engaged in the "real world" applications of what they are learning from the get-go (and have the needed background and personal characteristics to do so). I've never wanted to be a doctor (hate the sight of blood!) but if I did, the McMaster approach would suit me far better than the traditional one. These students are expected to "take responsibility for their own learning" but for once, that is an appropriate expectation -- whereas for Kindergarten children it is ridiculous.

There are students as early as middle-school age (and perhaps earlier) who are highly motivated, need only guidance and "facilitating" to soar ahead, and PBL is probably appropriate for these kids too, although some subjects, such as mathematics and foreign languages, are best taught with a mixture of didactic and experiential approaches.

Further to Tracy W's point about empirical work -- it appears that McMaster was also a pioneer in the development of the emphasis on "evidence-based medicine" (EBM) I remember reading about it and found some background information here:

I could see immediately a parallel, in cognitive terms, to practices in education -- which urgently needs to become more "evidence-based" -- and to clinical psychology, which has already moved in that direction. As other fields embrace evidence-based practices, there could be more pressure on education to follow suit -- but I am not sanguine about this possibility.

momof4 said...

Medical education has changed much in the last few decades, and there are vastly more restrictions on what med students (also residents) can do, as compared to what my DH did in the late 60s. There are also recent, and significant, restrictions on the number of hours students (and residents) can be assigned to both in-house and on-call duty. There has also been a significant change in the entry requirements for med school; far fewer science requirements. I think that all of these factors would affect the use of PBL.

ChemProf said...

Actually, the latest changes to premed requirements increase the science requirement, just for biology at the expense of chemistry and physics (where there is pressure to make some one semester versions of courses that used to be two semesters like organic chemistry).

It used to be that a year of biology was enough to prepare for the MCAT, now it is at least two years including biochemistry. Increasingly, we are recommending that premeds complete a science major (ideally biochemistry or biopsychology, since the MCAT now includes a behavioral sciences section), where there was a long period where you really could major in anything as long as you took some specific classes.

momof4 said...

There are also med schools which specifically seek to admit a group of kids with humanities degrees and not more than a freshman-level science. Einstein, in NYC) is one of them and a friend, whose son is there, says there are a number of schools with similar programs - I don't know how many. Apparently, the argument is that they have better interpersonal skills and empathy than do science majors.

ChemProf said...

Sure, there are a few specialized programs like that. There are also a lot of "postbac" programs for students with humanities majors who want to go to med school but need the premed coursework. These programs have been very successful (we have about an 80% admit rate to med school at my institution), but are trying to figure out how to be viable with the new requirements. The old system (1 year Gen Chem, 1 year Organic, 1 year Biology, 1 year physics) was easy to fit into two years, but the new system (which is also harder to figure out as it is based on "competencies," ptui, rather than courses) is much trickier.

Crimson Wife said...

Hmm, I recall when I was a pre-med in the mid-90's the requirements were 1 gen chem course or a 5 on the AP Chem exam, 2 courses Organic Chem, 1 course biochem, 1 year physics, 1 year bio, and either 1 year calculus or a 5 on the AP Calc B/C exam (prereq for the physics sequence).

I dropped pre-med before taking biochem or physics (having to register for biochem the next term was the catalyst for formally making the decision to drop it). I didn't dislike chemistry as a subject but the grading curve at my school in the pre-med chem sequence was brutal.