When I coached wrestling, I started the season by teaching (or, in most cases, re-teaching) that most basic of wrestling moves, the double-leg takedown. For those unfamiliar with the sport, this is the first takedown most kids learn—basically a tackle. I started by teaching the “perfect” version of the move, breaking it down to small, carefully choreographed steps that are memorized without the presence of an opponent. Then we added practice partners; first one who offered no resistance, then one who put up a little resistance, one who provided still more, until the wrestlers were practicing the move at full speed. For each individual wrestler to master the double-leg takedown, they had to adapt the idealized “perfect” move to their own particular wrestling style, which in turn depended upon a unique combination of height, agility, and strength. In this way, the generic, ideal move became personalized and fit into the larger arsenal of techniques that make each athlete a well-rounded wrestler.
In their first match, some of my wrestlers successfully performed the double-leg takedown against opponents who were trying to perform the same move (or some other takedown) on them. Some of my wrestlers were unable to complete the move successfully. As a result, in the next practice we returned to the “perfect version” of the double-leg takedown. Eventually, each individual wrestler successfully developed his own particular version of the double-leg takedown. However, if needed, they could always return to the “perfect version,” and rebuild their own move from that basic starting point.
Now let’s consider the process of authentic learning in school—which to many students is an oxymoron! As teachers, most of us know and feel that project-based learning, performance assessment, problem-based learning, and so on—anything that fits under the umbrella of authentic learning is ultimately preferable to a more traditional direct instruction coupled with testing approach. The real world isn’t about taking a test, it’s about completing projects—be they small, like washing the dishes, to designing a new form of renewable energy.
Yet, often when teachers try and implement a more project-based approach to their lesson planning things don’t go well. This is because the project is often an add-on to the traditional classroom learning. Learning through projects doesn’t replace lectures and testing—but instead is an added homework assignment. So from the student perspective, there is little purpose because they know the test grades are what really counts. That’s what the teacher must value because that’s what he or she spends class time working towards. With little scaffolding on how to complete a larger project, students (and/or their parents) revert to the most basic form of a project—a paper or PowerPoint presentation. In the end, this is really no different than the lecture and testing learning that is happening in the class. Students take a simple topic, find some information and report it back to the teacher. And if they do it in a group, they end up frustrated with their classmates because the work was not divided up equally—and certainly little meaningful collaboration happened. Therefore, when the teacher introduces the next “project,” he or she is met with groans.
In its ideal, project-based learning should be second nature to children. After all, we as mammals learn by playing, which is really just individualized exploration and inquiry about the world around us—the basic skills of project-based learning. And if school from the outset, built upon these basic skills and then followed this model, then project-based learning would be second nature to our students. But it’s not.
Instead we teach students from their first days in school that play is the reward they get (call it choice time) after they have done the unpleasant task of reading or math. I think we do this because we have this false notion of what basics skills students need first. We assume we have to first teach them reading and math (decoding information) before they can then apply those skills to learning about the world around them. So we wait to do any project-based, or authentic learning until they have those basics down. Unfortunately, by the time we get around to allowing students to make learning about exploration and play (often graduate school) school long ago became about completing tasks for the grade, but not the act of learning.
The basics we need to be teach are how to do project-based learning. Taking that “play” energy and enthusiasm and providing the framework for exploration of the world around them so they move beyond simple play to creating new ideas and ways of understanding. Now this is learning. Of course, decoding information is important too—but done in isolation it has no purpose. But in context of learning about something real and completing a task that is meaningful beyond the graded paper or presentation, now the basic skills of decoding information have purpose. Learning is really only meaningful when it has purpose.
And like the double-leg takedown, there really isn’t a “perfect” one because the one that is perfect is the one that works. There isn’t a perfect way to do project-based learning, except the way that works for the individual. The “perfect” version provides the scaffolding for the exploration—but it isn’t until the learner makes it her own—adapted for her strengths and compensating for her weaknesses to complete the project that she has become educated.
Or we can keep testing the shit out of them and make school about compliance and obedience instead of engagement and learning.