Monday, May 3, 2010

Project Hell

Projects. How do I hate them? Let me count the ways. Before I count, though, some background. My twin daughters, who are in grade five French immersion, attend school in the Toronto District School Board, which revised its homework policy in 2008. The new policy, which was intended drastically to reduce the homework load of Toronto students in all grades, took effect in September 2008. In a future post I will examine the new policy in detail and evaluate the effect it has had (or not had) on homework in my daughters' school. For now, suffice it to say that given that my daughters have been assigned four projects in one term (this one), the effect of the new policy has not been as great as one might have hoped.

Now back to the the ways of, and reasons for, hating projects. In Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish's book The Case Against Homework, there is a section entitled "The Homework Hall of Shame" in which the authors list examples of egregiously unreasonable projects assigned to real students (sent to them by real parents). Projects such as building a volcano from scratch out of materials found in the house, or baking sixty decorated cookies in one evening to celebrate the Day of the Dead. It should be obvious that assignments such as these are pedagogically useless, but clearly it is not obvious enough or teachers would not continue to assign them. So here, set forth in plain language, are some of the reasons why the vast majority of projects are to be feared and hated, and one hopes abolished:

1. Most projects are beyond the capacity of students to organize. For instance, my daughter was recently involved in a three-way partner project on ancient Greece comprised of a written report, an arts and crafts component, and a dramatic presentation (costumes required!). This combination of elements proved beyond the capacity of three ten-year-olds to organize. The very divvying up of the work was beyond them. One child would decide to write on a certain aspect of the topic, only to learn later that one of her partners had chosen an almost identical aspect. The arts and crafts component (building a model of an ancient Greek temple) was impossible to divvy up physically because it had to be carried out at one house. Ours was the lucky house, and my daughter and my husband ended up doing all the work on the temple because the partners were rarely available to come over to assist. Which leads to my second reason for hating projects.

2. Projects invite and in fact necessitate a great deal of parental involvement. In the case of partner projects, parents must organize numerous work "play dates" which, given contemporary children's schedules, is a logistical nightmare. Parents are also called upon to provide supplies, help with research (see number 4 below) and supervise arts and craft activities. In my case, I must also play the role of typist because my daughters' teacher demands that all written assignments be printed out, despite the fact that her ten-year-old students have never formally been taught keyboarding (see blog post Keyboard v. Cursive). I've heard teachers complain that projects are difficult to grade fairly because parents are too involved. Well, here's an idea: don't invite parents in! Don't assign partner projects; allocate sufficient time in class for students to complete all parts of the project (including any arts and crafts component); and allow all written parts to be handwritten.

3. Three words: arts and crafts. The most fundamental problem with arts and craft-type projects is the mismatch between the stated learning goal and the activity assigned. Building a model of a famous building or sketching a body part might conceivably demonstrate whether a child can work well with her hands or possesses any drawing talent. What it does not demonstrate is her intellectual understanding of the subject in question. I can't draw people to save my life—I'm stuck at the stick man level—but I actually do know a fair amount about human anatomy. Why is this simple fact of the disconnect between project activity and project goal—a mismatch remarked upon often by my ten-year-old daughters—so difficult for many teachers to understand?

4. One word this time: Google. Google is a great source of information, a wonderful research tool— for adults. For kids it is entirely inappropriate as a resource of first resort. Even for adults, it is often difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff on Google, so how is a child of ten or eleven or even younger supposed to do this? Furthermore,whatever happened to the notion of teaching things in steps? Surely there is an argument to be made that elementary students should master the skill of gathering information at a library from books and encyclopedias before venturing online. But even if one were to grant that libraries and encyclopedias are becoming obsolete, and that children must focus on learning current research methods, aren't teachers once again inviting too much parental involvement when they suggest that children simply Google their topic? After all, teachers know first-hand that much of the information found on the Internet is unreliable; must they not also concede that it would be a foolish parent indeed who would let a young child surf freely on his or her own?

5. A fifth reason for detesting projects is that they encourage a forced "creativity" that is not actually creative at all. For one of my daughter's recent projects, the students were asked to choose a body part and gather research about it. They were given the choice of three ways to present their research. They could: write a children's story about the body part, hand-drawing illustrations and diagrams to accompany it; they could build a model of their body part and write a report explaining the model; or they could present their research on a Bristol board with a diagram or drawing, a glossary and a report. Now, proponents of projects might argue that the first option, writing a story about a body part, is an educationally valuable assignment, one which encourages kids to think creatively about their material. But the truth is, while my daughters love to draw and write stories, and in fact engage in both activities often and without prompting when they have time, the prospect of writing a story about a body part for pre-schoolers did not particularly interest them. For one thing, being told how to be creative seemed to take the joy out of it for them. But more important, they seemed to sense that the effort-benefit ratio of such an undertaking was skewed. Writing a story targeted at young children, while possibly a worthwhile activity for a language arts class, is of questionable value in the context of a science class. It entails simplifying the knowledge rather extending and deepening it, which is how children are truly challenged, and is what happens when they are being truly creative. In the end, both daughters chose to do the model and the report, because it seemed to be the least work. (Remember they have four projects to complete in this term alone.) So what this project ended up engendering was not creativity but cynicism.

6. Multitasking. Another word, and another reason to hate projects. For the project on ancient Greece mentioned above, there were simply too many elements—written, arts and crafts, dramatic—for fifth graders to wrap their young minds around. As my children were desperately trying to work on and coordinate all three elements of this project, it occurred to me that perhaps the point of modern education is to produce efficient multitaskers. A project like this one certainly does nothing to encourage serious, focused work on a topic, given the number of elements that it forces the child to juggle at one time. As it happened, students in the class focused on the component they felt most comfortable with; however, if the other two parts were deemed weak, the grade was lowered accordingly.

7. Projects eat into weekend family time. I could say that projects eat into weekday family time as well, but I emphasize weekend time because weekday time is already eaten into—not necessarily by extracurricular activities but by regular homework. So, although the new Toronto District School Board homework policy discourages weekend and holiday homework, when else do teachers think models are going to get pasted together, machines built or costumes sewn? I've heard of parents having to cancel family events or forgo weekends away because of projects. Enough said.

I could go on and on, because the reasons to dislike projects are as various and endless as the projects themselves. But seven seems like a good number to end on, lucky or unlucky depending on your cultural perspective. If I'm lucky, my daughters' grade five teacher will never set eyes on this post! (For the record, she is a pleasant, well-meaning person, who just happens to love assigning projects.)

Thanks for reading.