Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Learning in a Messy Environment

Elise Mueller is a Bellingham, Wash., teacher who seems to be in an ideal setting for project-based learning to thrive. She and two fellow elementary teachers share teaching responsibilities for grades 3-5. Students come to Mueller's room for social studies and language arts; her colleagues teach science and math. All three teachers integrate technology, and they regularly plan projects that cut across disciplines. But as Mueller told me recently in an interview for Northwest Education magazine, there's still one remaining challenge: getting students on board.

"This is a shift for kids who are not used to driving their own learning," she admits. The project approach often involves "learning in a messy environment." Students are asked to make choices, to work in teams, to tackle problems that may have more than one right solution. "If students are used to just following directions," Mueller admits, "it can be frustrating. It's a new arena for them."
The story goes on to describe what happened with one group of students who took initiative on a project--with fantastic results. But I can't help wondering how many more students never get that opportunity. How well are we preparing them for the "messy environment" of life beyond the classroom?


sue said...

Your post and the comments from Elise Mueller support some of my thinking as of late on the 'pre-conditions' for teaching in a learning 2.0 classroom. Admittedly, I have been thinking more about those skills that a teacher needs to effectively 'pull off' the messy learning that you talk about - I've also been musing about the administration and how they need to change to support such learning. Your post reminds me, though, that attention to providing some scaffolding for the student is also necessary as they enter this, at times, 'crazy' learning environment. I'm wondering if more attention in teacher training and professional learning circles needs to focus on the pre-conditions for success - Typically, it seems in most sessions, we talk about the activity and how to do it, not the 'what needs to come before'. I'd love to hear your take on this!

Suzie Boss said...

Hi Sue,
I think you're getting at a key idea: What does it take to set up ourselves and our students for success? For starters, it helps to let students in on the game plan. Why are you taking the project approach? Have a conversation about what's possible with real-world learning--and why it matters. It's all part of building the learning community. Throughout the project, encourage reflection--What's different about learning this way? What's hard? How are your students learning to learn? Think about capturing short video reflections, too, so that your next class can hear from their peers. We often talk about how pedagogy changes with project-based learning but forget to think about what changes from the learner's point of view.
Eager to hear what works for you--keep us posted!

Gioko said...

I some how agree with the messy enviroment.But what I really like about the project based approach is the fact that it will be initiated by the students and they will select the best approach to solve the problem or the issue.When student are given an open hand they put on teh inquiry gear and they do learn alot. Ther are however challenges as to hoe much they can do and what guidance we can put in. But again its important to gauge our assessment as to what teh students have done that is appreciate their effort instead of stipulating what must done and finding out what they have not done as a penalty.