Building a bridge

Peoria bridge

A school board member said to me a while back:

Scott, I hear what you’re saying about active, hands-on, project-based learning. But I got to tell you, when I’m driving over a bridge, I want to have confidence that the people who designed and built it knew what they were doing. So if that takes a lot of practice on worksheets until students know their math and science, so be it.

I responded:

I agree that I don’t want the bridge collapsing under me either! If we want graduates who know how to build solid, long-lasting bridges, we absolutely can have them do a bunch of practice problems on worksheets until we think they know the math and science and we’ll hope that they will remember it later.

… (pause) …

Or we could have them build bridges.

… (pause) …

Who do you think will be better bridge builders?

How do we help our communities understand that authentic learning is possible?

12 Responses to “Building a bridge”

  1. I agree that we need to shift public towards more authentic assessments. Your bridge-building example is excellent.

    On the other hand, I think there is a place for (well designed, meaningful) worksheets. And I occasionally see teachers so wrapped up in authentic assessments that they assign excessive bridge-building, or kids getting graded on the asthetics of their bridge rather than the concepts they are supposed to be mastering; or ‘authentic’ assessments taking dozens of hours (and more specifically their parents’ labour, as kids ‘get help’ with their homework) for quite simple concepts. In other words, one can screw up and overdo authentic assessments too.

    The problem is not that all worksheets are bad any more than all so-called authentic assessments are good. Teachers need to be able to judge which assessment is appropriate to the skill/knowledge being taught and assessed.

    I think the more immediate problem with both styles is that teachers use assessments for purposes other than promoting learning.
    Worksheets are routinely handed out long after students have demonstrated mastery of the concept–because assigning worksheets keeps the little buggers quiet and occupied.

    Sadly, the same can be said of authentic assessments — building a model can take up days of class time, completely out of proportion to the importance or complexity of the concept officially addressed, because such ‘fun’ activities can be palmed off as enrichment or innovative teaching when in reality it is another variety of teacher laziness–the desire to fill time rather than to provide actual enrichment or learning.

    Authentic assessments tend to be better because the teachers who embrace them tend to be thinking, committed teachers trying to move beyond worksheets. But imposed from above by well intended administrators and curriculum designers, weak teachers turn ‘authentic’ into ‘torturous’. The key is that teachers understand the purpose of authentic assessments and so implement them purposefully, rather than copy the form without understanding. If the teacher is merely copying others, it might actually be better for them to stick to worksheets (which photocopy well!) then to go through the motions of bridge building where zero learning is occurring.

    Fortunately, I believe in teachers…so moving the system towards more authentic assessment means that most teachers will improve teaching and learning…but um. Not a cure-all.

  2. Hi Scott,

    I think the biggest frustration I have with that line of thinking is what evidence we have ever had that doing “a bunch of practice problems on worksheets” leads to learning – or that project-based learning would NOT lead to learning AND in addition, deeper understanding & retention perhaps for even MORE kids.

    The other thing I struggle with is the inability or lack of willingness for people to see that the world our students will be living in is so different already and will most certainly continue to change. The degree to which our students will have to manage every aspect of their lives – jobs, careers, finances, health and the challenges they will face collectively – will require them to develop competencies and dispositions far different than what were needed in the past.

    I am not sure what else can be done to get more people engaged in a discussion about that!

  3. The Bridge Building story is cute, but not really meaningful since actually building a bridge is substantially different from building a model and involves understanding of material capabilities, long-established principles, not to mention advanced math. Therefore, as fun as such a project might be, that engaging fun doesn’t automatically make it better than worksheets. And why compare it to worksheets anyway since all teachers have many other options available.
    Excellent teaching is blend of practice (worksheets & math problems) and original work and you can’t have one without the other. Going all in on model building or its equivalent won’t, by itself, improve education. And – getting school board members to think that only the model building teachers are getting the job done is dangerous.

    • I would argue that thinking that the worksheet / lecture / textbook teachers are getting the job done is what’s dangerous.

      We have many. many schools now that are showing us that real-world-embedded, authentic work is not only more than ‘cute’ but also possible and powerful.

      The worksheet comparison came from the school board member, not from me…

  4. Many schools are using real-world, authentic work, which I fully endorse. But, when those terms are used to discredit the building of skills through practice, and turns teaching into an either/or proposition, I think that is not helpful. If teachers are made to feel, every time they assign math problems or have students find clauses, that they are old-school drill and kill losers, the cause is not advanced.

    • Richard, the intention here was not to denigrate building skills through practice. But HOW we have kids build skills and HOW we have kids practice are important conversations. If we had an overwhelming number of schools going too far toward the PBL end of things such that it raised concern, it would be one thing. But that’s not the case. So you’re right, it’s not an either/or proposition. But in most schools right now, PBL is a marginal presence, not the main way of doing things. So I’m pushing on the dominant form of skill-building and practice, which is teacher lecture, worksheets, and textbook questions. We must ask more of ourselves as educators so that we can in turn ask more of our students. We can’t make it taboo to talk about worksheet-driven teaching.

      Thanks for the friendly pushback and conversation.

  5. And, thank you for the thoughtful response.

  6. Obviously, determining how students are best going to learn and retain information is (or should be) teachers’ top priority, and the debate whether teachers should tell their students what they need to know (i.e. assign worksheet after worksheet) or create an environment in which they can discover the information on their own (i.e. build bridges) is not a new one. And while the latter option often seems to be the ideal that teachers should be striving for, it does come with an important set of concerns.

    Chief among these concerns is that the research that has been done on the effectiveness of expository teaching methods versus constructivist methods has come to no clear conclusion as to which methods are ultimately superior. In a large study in 2008, Geier et al. found that students who were in an inquiry-based science curriculum outperformed students in the standard curriculum on a standardized state science test. However, in 2000, Colliver et al. reviewed 6 years worth of studies comparing medical students in problem-based learning (PBL) curricula to medical students in a standard curriculum track and found, “no convincing evidence for the effectiveness of PBL…” And there are countless other studies like these that come to opposing conclusions.

    Admittedly, researchers who come to conclusions similar to Colliver’s do seem surprised, as these kinds of problem- or project-based learning curricula not only intuitively seem more effective, they are based on basic educational principles, like the idea that a student who is actively engaged will learn more than a passive and possibly bored student. But before we throw out the research and go with our intuition, it is also important to remember that PBL is much more difficult and time-consuming for teachers to implement and implement well in their classrooms. Futhermore, giving a student the opportunity to learn how to build a bridge through trial-and-error comes with no guarantee that that student will ever actually manage to build a bridge, while practice worksheets can at least ensure that the student learns the underlying principles of bridge-building.

    All that being said, I don’t know exactly what the solution here is. I do like the idealistic picture of students learning and discovering information on their own, and it does seem to me that this should produce deeper, more meaningful learning than the “busy work” that too often dominates classrooms, but I think teachers and curriculum writers must find a balance between the two extremes to create a learning environment that is both engaging and effective.

    • Hi Jordan,

      The PBL schools that are out there seem to do just fine with students’ test scores? (while gaining the advantages of higher student interest and engagement) Also, the Hewlett Foundation’s latest study (conducted by AIR) seems to indicate that deeper learning works?

      I don’t think the idea behind PBL is that we just turn students loose to build bridges via trial-and-error. I guess we might, depending on how inquiry-focused we were, but most of the PBL environments that I’ve witnesses are more structured and scaffolded (without being overly directive).

      Finally, I’ll note that in PBL schools the ‘picture of students learning and discovering information on their own’ isn’t ‘idealistic’ and is instead realistic (in the sense that it’s actually happening, with success).

      Most schools likely will find some kind of balance between traditional teacher-directed and more student-driven learning spaces. I’ll confess, though, that the places that I’ve seen that are higher on student agency are awfully interesting and exciting places to see in action…

      Thanks for the dialogue.

  7. Richard Kelleher Reply April 15, 2015 at 6:09 am

    I’ve run lots of bridge-building type lessons/units/courses in 20+ years of science teaching, and there are also kids who are bored & disengaged in activities that I would find inherently interesting. Plenty of kids have learnt nothing more than “building bridges is hard, and mine didn’t hold much weight, and I don’t like it anyway”.

    • So we can talk to these students and unpack this, right? We can ask questions like:

      What is it about this hands-on activity that’s not grabbing you? What’s confusing to you? Where are you struggling? How could we redesign this challenge together to make it more interesting to you? and so on…

      When you ask these kinds of questions of the students who are disengaged, what do they say?

      • I’ve found that the students who are disengaged are often the ones who are upset that you aren’t playing by the “rules” of school that they have learned. That is that if they work quietly and don’t cause problems, they will be ignored. I have actually heard students say “I wish he would just give us worksheets like the other teachers” when we are doing Project Based learning.

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