Illinois Loop
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Projects vs. Learning

    One of the most visible changes in American schools in the last few decades has been the wholesale stampede towards non-stop projects and activities.

    Projects are not a new concept. In the early decades of the 20th century, so-called "progressive" education theorists rhapsodized about what they called the "project method". But for most of that century, in most schools, projects were used sparingly, often as culminating events for a semester or a unit.

    But today, projects are everywhere and unrelenting. Stock up on posterboard, launch PowerPoint and KidPix, sharpen the crayons and colored pencils, buy stacks of construction paper, and get ready for your dioramas, working models, decorated boxes, multimedia art extravaganzas, dress-up costumes -- it's project time!

WHY So Many Projects?

Why is this happening? Why have schools been turned from places of learning into places of low-challenge activities? The blame can be fixed with several converging theories that together have overwhelmed schools and teachers:
  • Constructivism:
      The pervasive education religion of "constructivism" holds that a child learns best through active "doing". To some extent, this is of course true. However, the Achilles heel of constructivism is that this is a painfully plodding and tedious way of learning, while forcing a drastic reduction (dumbing down) of the content of a course. While an active project may often be a good technique for making a difficult concept clear, it is often used when a simple direct method would be just as effective and far more efficient.
  • Groups:
      The pressure for "collaborative learning" or "cooperative learning" is frequently met with more projects and activities.
  • Interdisciplinary curriculum:
      Teachers are under pressure to find "thematic" or "interdisciplinary" links between subjects. There is nothing inherently wrong with that -- the Core Knowledge Sequence used in the Core Knowledge schools is carefully constructed to encourage learning in this way. But without a rigorous, well-reasoned curriculum like the CK Sequence, the result too often is time-wasting art or writing projects linking vague language arts goals with minimal content points.
  • Multiple Intelligences:
      The fevered success of another fad, Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences (click for much more info on that), pressures teachers into coming up with separate projects for each of this theory's supposed categories. So, we have one project to appeal to "kinesthetic" children, another project for the "intrapersonal" learners, we sing a song for the "musical" learners, and so on. Of course, since the MI mindset offers no method to identify or quantify these supposed differences, the bottom line is lots and lots of projects for all the children in the class.
  • Anti-Fact Mentality:
      Starting in ed school and throughout their careers in most schools, teachers are subjected to a barrage of rhetoric about the dangers of teaching facts. They are told not to teach "mere facts" to be "regurgitated." Learning of specific content knowledge is called "low level" and nothing more than "memorization." What used to be called "learning" is now disparaged as "brain-stuffing". A teacher is to be "a guide on the side" rather than "a sage on the stage." This drumbeat from the ed schools and education orthodoxy is pervasive and relentless, and teachers are drilled incessantly (ironic, isn't it?) that direct teaching is to be avoided. So, if the teacher isn't teaching, what are the kids likely to be doing? Yup, more projects.
  • Anti-Fact Assessments:
      If facts are bad, then testing whether children know facts is even worse -- or so teachers are told. Thus, chapter tests and other quantitative measures of learning are deemphasized in favor of so-called "authentic" assessment, in which we look at a whole "portfolio" of a child's "work" which largely consists of (ta da!) projects.
  • "Authentic" Skills:
      If the purpose of a school is not to build knowledge, then what is a school for? The progressivists have a ready answer for that: to learn supposed "skills." They argue that since knowledge is always increasing, it is hopeless to try to teach very much at all (using a twisted logic that defies comprehension). What kids need, they say, is to learn how to look things up. Well, guess what? Projects give them an "opportunity" to look things up instead of being taught.
  • Innovation:
      School administrators suppose themselves to be seen as "creative" or "innovative." We often read of a school calling itself "innovative" or a teacher said to be "creative" ort "imaginative." Those are fine attributes, but not when they take the place of words like "effective" or "knowledgeable." One teacher might be extraordinarily effective and captivating in teaching children a rich, detailed and memorable introduction to American history, while another teacher gains more recognition from parents and maybe the local newspaper not by teaching much of anything but by staging a marathon dress-up pageant, puppet show or enormous craft project.
  • Finding a Use for Computers:
      Projects provide a convenient raison d'etre for the expensive computers that schools have been buying in bulk.
  • Smaller Class Sizes:
      For all of the above reasons, the teaching industry is obsessive about urging more dubious classroom projects. But when class sizes are large, it's extremely difficult to manage the hubbub of activity and to try to keep a semblance or order. But as class sizes shrink, it becomes ever more practical for a teacher to assign more and more projects.

Parents and the Push for Projects

    A huge obstacle to reining in ill-conceived and excessive projects is educating parents. Parents need to become aware of the gaps in their children's knowledge in the wake of all these ever-so-cute looking time-wasters.

    Some real examples:

    • One school has no coherent study of world history anywhere in its K-8 program, but parents fondly remember the "bottle people" project where kids decorated pop bottles in "social studies."

    • Another school obsesses over lengthy "discovery" projects in science and thus, due to time constraints, huge swaths of important science topics are never mentioned. But parents ooh and ah over Johnny's diorama of a rainforest and Heather's tri-fold illustrated poster on acid rain.

    • In another school, children spend hours per day for 17 weeks "writing" a "book" laden with pictures but only a few paragraphs of text, and parents gleefully welcome such an "imaginative" endeavor, barely noticing how little their children are learning.

    Not only do parents typically not complain about all this nonsense, many of them actually find all of this commotion and activity tremendously alluring! Many parents trustingly assume that the real learning must be going on somewhere else in the program, despite all indications to the contrary.

    When it untimately dawns on some parents that, gee, their kids seem to be spending an awful lot of time late into the night working on projects, even then many see this as simply as a problem of quantity. This leads to complaints that the kids have "too much homework." (Does that sound familiar? Then by all means take a look at our page on Homework.)

    Overall, the obsession over projects means that something has to give, and that something is the learning of substantial and substantive content knowledge. School honchos chant, "the old curriculum was a mile wide and an inch deep," but the new reality is that huge chunks of the old curriculum were simply wiped out, with the time replaced not by depth, but by happy-time projects. Calling our schools "dumbed down" is not merely an epithet; it is real, and it is pervasive.

Dangers of Excessive Projects

  • To the teachers... Stop the Stupid Projects! in Parentalcation blog, October 15, 2008: "To all the educators who read this blog: Stop the useless projects. Seriously, please stop it. Stop wasting my kids time coloring stupid stuff that has nothing to do with the subject. You think you are being creative. You think you are making things interesting. What you don't see is the hours my kids spend at the table, stressing over whether their glue smeared or their lines are straight. You don't see the $100's of dollars we spend every year on poster boards, crayons, printer ink, felt pens, etc. If you really think my kids have too much time on their hands at home, just have them copy sentences out of a textbook. They would learn more. and I wouldn't be cleaning dried up glue off of my kitchen table as a result of a Social Studies project. Thank you."

  • "You Can Always Look It Up ... Or Can You?" by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., "American Educator" magazine (American Federation Of Teachers), Spring 2000. This is a powerful and dramatic article by Hirsch defending the role of knowledge in education. The question is whether a "skills" curriculum that emphasizes "projects", "research", "webquests", "reports" and the like is an adequate alternative to learning a rich core of knowledge.
    This article is highly recommended!

  • Lost In Action: Are Time-Consuming, Trivializing Activities Displacing The Cultivation Of Active Minds? by Gilbert T Sewall, "American Educator" magazine (American Federation Of Teachers), Summer 2000. Another powerful article from the AFT's magazine, this time calling into question the trend of extended projects in place of real learning.
    This article is highly recommended!

  • "Nurturing The Life Of The Mind: If Schools Don't Value Intellect, Who Will?" American School Board Journal (cover story), National School Boards Association, January 2001. This is a wake-up call for school board members, alerting them to the anti-knowledge mentality that pervades education. Excerpts:
         "Our schools, with their high academic standards, high-stakes tests, and performance bonuses for improved achievement scores -- surely our schools are bastions of intellectualism? Not necessarily. Your parents and community, even your teachers and administrators, perhaps even you, might unwittingly be holding back your schools from cultivating intellect in your students and exposing them to the joys of the life of the mind. ...
         "Symptoms of pervasive anti-intellectualism in our schools aren't difficult to find. ... The idea that children must be entertained and feel good while they learn has been embraced by many well-meaning educators. In many classrooms, as a result, students are watching movies, working on multimedia presentations, surfing the Internet, putting on plays, and dissecting popular song lyrics. The idea is to motivate students, but the emphasis on enjoyment as a facile substitute for engagement creates a culture in which students are not likely to challenge themselves or stretch their abilities. ...
         "Project-based learning always has the potential to be based on fun rather than content, says former teacher and administrator Elaine McEwan. ... She uses the example of a class of academically struggling elementary school students in Arizona that spent 37 hours -- more than a school week -- building a papier-mache dinosaur. The local newspaper even ran a photo of the students and their handiwork. 'Those kids couldn't read well, and they spent all that time messing with chicken wire and wheat paste,' says McEwan."
    This article is highly recommended!

  • Learning Requires More Than Play by J. E. Stone. Excerpt: "For years educational experts have held that the only good way to engage students in schoolwork is by making it exciting, engaging, and fun. ...The public has been told that school facilities must be attractive, books colorful, and, above all, studies must be "intrinsically" interesting. Teachers ... have been told that if their teaching is truly enthusiastic, innovative, and creative, students will learn spontaneously, if not effortlessly. ... After 25 years of trying to fix things, it is time to face a few facts of human nature: ... What ... so many ... experts are finding reflects an often disagreeable truth about learning: Learning takes study and study takes time and effort. ... The idea that learning should be motivated solely by interest and enthusiasm not only ignores the role of work, it also skews the focus of education.

  • "The Road to Interest and Curiosity" by Ron Rude, American Educator (American Federation of Teachers), Spring 2002. Excerpts:     "Whether public education can survive in the 21st century will depend not nearly so much on making the system personally interesting or occupationally relevant, as it will on helping kids and the adults who nurture them understand that perseverance and self-discipline will get them a lot further in life than 'interest' will. I'm not optimistic that we will ever recognize this, much less accomplish it. ...
        "Interest ... is something that we develop ... by knowing something about the subject in the first place ... or by tying the information in front of us to something we already understand. ...
        "The longer we pander to the notion of providing only 'interesting' schoolwork, the longer it will be until we build a national seriousness about scholarliness and the less likely it will be that we'll ever have in great quantity students who realize their highest creative and intellectual capacities."
    Note: This article also appeared in Education Week, August 8, 2001 under the name "Isn't That Interesting!"

  • Projects and Activities: A Means, Not an End (PDF file) by Elaine Wrisley Reed, American Educator (American Federation of Teachers), Winter 1997-1998. "Hands-on," "real-world" projects, and "discovery" or "experiential" learning are all the rage, but let's make sure all this "doing" is the best way to get to where we want to go.

  • Dr. Stan Metzenberg has written extensively on the teaching of math and science, and has this to say about projects in sciences classes: "Hands-on investigative activities ought to be sprinkled into a science program like a 'spice'; they cannot substitute for a 'main dish'. The best 'hands-on' program would be one in which students can get their 'hands on' an informative textbook!" Read more in Dr. Metzenberg's paper, "Reading: The Most Important Science Process Skill." Our education quotes page has more entries on the obsession over the "Scientific Method".

  • "Is 'Interdisciplinary' Better? The Limits of Thematic Instruction" by John Holdren, Common Knowledge, Volume 7, No. 4, Fall 1994. "Interdisciplinary instruction, carefully thought-out and judiciously applied, can help students make important connections. Contrary to some current thinking, however, not everything needs to be connected. It's not only acceptable, but sometimes preferable, to stay within the traditional disciplinary boundaries. It's fine, for example, for a fifth-grade class to devote a specific block of time daily to reading, discussing, and writing about Tom Sawyer. The book runs the risk of being swallowed if placed in a twelve-week interdisciplinary extravaganza during which students compute the area of board fence that Tom hoodwinked his friends into whitewashing; create geographic relief maps of Hannibal, Missouri; study the formation of stalagmites and stalactites...; or dress up in overalls and straw hats for 'Tom Sawyer Days.'"

  • Constructivism in Education: Sophistry for a New Age by Martin A. Kozloff, May 1998. This sharply-worded criticism of the "constructivist" orthodoxy demolishes its premises one by one.

  • Logical Fallacies In Constructivist Writing by Martin A. Kozloff. Here's another strong paper by Dr. Kozloff on the failings of constructivism, this time focusing on the logical fallacies that underpin its premises. Dr. Kozloff also has written an excellent Brief Introduction to Logic that serves as a quick course in logic, formal and informal fallacies, with many examples, often from the world of education.

  • Teaching To The Education Fads by Thomas Sowell, Washington Times, August 24, 2002. Excerpt: "Nobody believes that the way to train pilots is to let them 'discover' the principles of flight ... The issue is not what sounds plausible but what actually works. But judging one method of teaching against another by the end results that each produces is the last thing that our fad-ridden educators want. ... For decades, the ultimate test of any teaching method has been whether it was fashionable among educators."

  • Learning Requires More Than Play by J. E. Stone, Association of American Educators. Excerpt: "As an educational psychologist, I have no disagreement with learning that is exciting, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable. What I find unrealistic, however, is the pedagogical orthodoxy that worthwhile learning occurs only when studies are exciting and fun. In truth, many valuable lessons in both school and daily life are not fun at all. Students who study because they feel obliged to do so (i.e., who study even when they do not feel especially interested or enthused), learn both the easy lessons and the difficult ones; and they learn something important about life as well. They learn that real achievement usually requires a real effort."

  • "Bad-Homework Book Is Warm-Puppy Dogma" by Marianne M. Jennings. (Also available at this address.) Excerpt: "There is a certain breed of teacher ... who insists on posters, presentations and panoramas as homework based on the odd belief that children learn from such inane tasks. My oldest and I spent her eighth grade year running to the party store looking for figurines and props for her American history class projects. It is her weakest knowledge area because there were no tests -- just crafts."

  • "How to learn to play in the key of E" by Lawrence Henry: A parent thinks about how he became a better clarinet musician, and concludes that what is true in music also applies apply to students in schools: "You don't learn principles, and have principles help you learn stuff. You learn stuff, and the stuff leads to learning principles. Doesn't sound like much, does it? In fact, it's the key to education. And, importantly for today, it's almost the exact reverse of the way school teachers try to teach kids nowadays."

  • Rules Treat School Art As Fire Hazard by Anand Vaishnav, Boston Globe, June 10, 2003: "Worried that displays of artwork in schools could become fire hazards, a state panel has ordered schools to sharply reduce the amount of decorations and other materials they proudly hang up in classrooms and corridors."

  • History is Fun (PDF) by Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review, January 26, 2004. "A large number of Social Studies educators experience difficulty, despite their many imaginative efforts, in 'making history fun' for their students at all levels in our schools. One clue to the problem might be found in an analogy. Imagine what a hard time teachers would have in making movies enjoyable for young people if they began by preventing them from seeing any movies. They would have to show filmstrips about movies, take field trips to buildings where movies have been shown, have speakers come in who once saw a movie, etc. And none of it would work..."


  • Jigsawing: Divide and conquer, or Swiss cheese?
    An extremely common implementation of projects is called "jigsawing": each student in a class "researches" a single aspect of the topic at hand. It produces a roomful of "reports" on obscure rivers, papier mache models of ears of corn, live costumed presentations, decorated "bottle people" and so on. These things charm parents. But they leave students with a Swiss cheese knowledge base.

    Learn more: Click here for more info.

The Crayola Curriculum

    The replacement of academics with endless "artwork" and "creative" projects has engendered a new and very descriptive label: The Crayola Curriculum.

  • The 'Crayola Curriculum' by Mike Schmoker, Education Week, October 24, 2001. "I found myself touring a school [and] I went from being puzzled to astonished by what I saw. ... the [classroom] activities themselves seemed to bear no relation whatsoever to reading, the presumed subject being taught at the time. After touring about 50 classrooms in several schools in several states ... I became doubly convinced. I am now up to about 300 classrooms, and the pattern still holds. What is actually going on during these early-grade reading periods? A number of things, but the activity that overwhelmed all legitimate literacy activities may surprise you. Students were not reading, they weren't writing about what they had read, they weren't learning the alphabet or its corresponding sounds; they weren't learning words or sentences or how to read short texts. They were coloring. Coloring on a scale unimaginable to us before these classroom tours. The crayons were ever-present. Sometimes, students were cutting or building things out of paper (which they had colored) or just talking quietly while sitting at 'activity centers' that were presumably for the purpose of promoting reading and writing skills. These centers, too, were ubiquitous, and a great source of pride to many teachers and administrators. They were great for classroom management -- and patently, tragically counterproductive."

  • Quoted by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish: "'I sit on Amy's bed until 11 P.M. quizzing her, knowing she's never going to use this later, and it feels like abuse', says Nina of Menlo Park, California, whose eleven-year-old goes to a Blue Ribbon public school ... Nina also questions the amount of time spent on 'creative' projects. 'Amy had to visit the Mission in San Francisco and then make a model of it out of cardboard, penne pasta, and paint. But what was she supposed to be learning from this? All my daughter will remember is how tense we were in the garage making this thing. Then when she handed it in, the teacher dropped it and all the penne pasta flew off.' These days, says Nina, 'Amy's attitude about school has really soured.' Nina's has, too. 'Everything is an emergency and you feel like you're always at battle stations.'"

  • The 'Crayola Curriculum' Takes Over by Donna Harrington-Lueker, op-ed in the USA Today, September 16, 2002. "Talk to teachers, review messages posted on e-mail groups and browse professional journals, and you'll find high school assignments that are long on fun and remarkably short on actual writing."

  • School Reform News provided an update on the Crayola Curriculum in its June 2003 issue.

  • The Real Causes of Higher Achievement by Mike Schmoker, Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL). "I once interviewed a 'teacher of the year' at one school who bragged that her social studies students did almost no reading or writing. She scoffed at writing -- learning in her class was all interactive and hands-on. Did her principal know this? I closely observed a team of teachers known for a particularly engaging month-long language arts unit they had developed. In what was supposed to be an English class, students watched movies, worked with paper and fabric, and prepared food together. But actual reading during that month was kept to a minimum, and there was no writing instruction whatsoever. I've toured hundreds of classrooms during the 'reading period' with administrators who work hard and care about kids -- but who, until these tours, didn't realize that less than half of what occurred during 'reading' had any connection to reading or writing. In many of these classrooms, coloring activities took up much of the reading period. The predominance of coloring activities in classrooms has been corroborated by research teams from the Washington-based Education Trust."

  • "Postermania!"
    Go to this page to hear a group on Chicago-area parents and teachers discuss their experiences in this thread. Hear all about stuffed moles, decorated paper cubes, Elizabethan dresses, obsessions over PowerPoint, and why you should always buy the largest size of posterboard you can find. Click for more info.

  • Arts and Crafts Forever by Joanne Jacobs, September 02, 2005. "My niece started her junior year at a highly rated California high school. For her honors pre-calculus class, she was assigned to do a collage about herself. My sister thinks 11th grade is time enough to stop doing time-wasting -- and mathless -- art projects. 'It's a math class!' she said. 'Why aren't they doing math?' I mentioned my journalism students seemed surprised when I told them not to write in the first person. They'd spent years being encouraged to write about themselves and their feelings and draw pictures about themselves and their feelings. 'Sometimes, it's not about you,' my sister said. 'It's about pre-calculus!'"

    Note: Go to the above webpage for a fascinating series of comments from readers who cite their own "Crayola Curriculum" adventures.

  • Express Yourself by Amber Taylor, September 02, 2005. "Joanne Jacobs expresses shock that her high school aged niece was told to make a collage about herself for pre-calculus class. I can top this. Our first assignment at Harvard Law School was to make a collage. My journal from the time reflects my disgust with this absurd task: For my First Year Lawyering class (where we learn writing and research methods), we have to make 'a collage, a drawing, a crayon rendition, or any form of expression that depicts the qualities of the lawyer you most want to be.' No joke, people. For my first assignment at Harvard Law School, I have to make a collage. Or bust out the crayons. Either way, it sounds damn silly. I didn't take the assignment very seriously. My effort can be found here. I only wish I had photos of my classmates' submissions. Many people used the suggested crayons, and one woman made a mobile."

  • The Head of Boone, "11D" blog, March 23, 2006. "Last week, Jonah's teacher assigned a book report. He had to get a bibliography from the school library, fill in a worksheet about the book, and then render the likeness of this hero in styrofoam. She provided detailed description about how we had to secure a styrofoam ball onto a paper towel tube and then make clothes and accessories. ... I drove around New Jersey for an hour looking for styrofoam balls, because I just don't have those things around the house. I unwound an entire roll of paper towels."

  • Columnist and blogger Joanne Jacobs wrote about this in Bring Me the Head of Dan'l Boone, March 26, 2006, and about her own family she adds, "I suffer post-traumatic stress from my attempt to make a George Washington wig for my daughter for a third-grade project. I don't get the point either. What does a student learn about Daniel Boone by sticking a styrofoam ball on a cardboard tube? Why not spend the time reading more books and learning to communicate with words? I swear I was buying poster board for my daughter right up through 12th grade AP English. Oh, and now I'm flashing back to my daughter's 8th grade build-a-molecule science project. Or was it an atom? Well, I did learn one lesson: Use styrofoam." This article also includes a number of posted comments from readers, with observations like these:
    • "This stuff is a waste of the student's time and a waste of the parent's time."
    • "So, after that whole project, the son will have the ability to create poor models of famous people -- the details of their lives are unnecessary."
    • "I can imagine that some students could better understand how molecules bond by building a model. But for others, doing that would be more of a life and death battle with a Skil knife than a learning experience.
    • "Looks like ole Dan'l is carrying a drawing of a firearm. That ought to be good for a visit by the local SWAT squad, a two week expulsion and court-ordered psychological counselling."

  • "What ever happened to the written word? Where are the book report assignments? When will you guys ever learn how to write?"
    A Mom's Plea: Don't Make Me Do School Projects! By Janine Wood (a Mom in Deerfield, IL), Christian Science Monitor November 17, 2006. "It can wreck marriages and destroy family life, and it's more burdensome than travel soccer, football practice, or the Boy Scouts: It's the school project. Ask a bunch of mothers how they spent their week, and they will tell you that they built the Parthenon with sugar cubes, the Pyramids from milk cartons, and Mount Olympus using Cocoa Puffs. ...
         "Consider a recent Sunday evening at my house. ... a voice cried out from upstairs. 'Mom, I forgot I need to bring a hot glue gun to school tomorrow for a project. We are making African masks in social studies. And, oh yeah, Mom, I also need pipe cleaners, a box of sugar cubes, and some wooden spoons - you know, the kind they use with those little ice cream cups.' ...
         "Recently, while rummaging through my son's 20-pound backpack, I found a note from the literature teacher: 'Class, please sew together a stuffed animal representing a character from the Dr. Dolittle novel we read in class. It doesn't have to be elaborate, simply use any old scraps you have around the house.' ...
         "But wait, it gets worse. Beware the dreaded 'group project.' Three or four kids clad in old Halloween costumes might reenact the battle of Agincourt for a home video. Or if your child is studying ancient civilizations, you might need to throw together a few Babylonian ziggurats for a backdrop. ... Of course, one responsible student usually does all the work while the others goof off and get equal credit. ...
         "And it doesn't end in grammar school. When my high school daughter got the assignment to create a quilt representing the stages of her life, I finally lost control and ran around the house screaming, 'What ever happened to the written word? Where are the book report assignments? When will you guys ever learn how to write?'"

  • How Do We Meet the Framework's Reading Goals by Jack Farrell, Conejo Valley Unified School District. "Give up on what researcher Mike Schmoker calls 'the Crayola Curriculum.' After 3rd grade, leave art to the art teacher. How much text could a student consume during the two full days of class he and his classmates spent drawing ship-trap island from the story The Most Dangerous Game? Not that there isn't anything a student can learn from the exercise of graphically representing ideas which originate in text, but what is the trade-off? I would estimate about 12,000 words of running text?"

  • A teacher in Montgomery County, MD comments on the damage done in a math class: "It was easy to fool people when the new curriculum was just a paper document, but now that it's in the classroom, the horror stories are starting to come in. I just learned of a child whose math skills are a solid 2 years above grade level, but he's getting grade-level instruction because there are 'gaps' -- which turned out to be entirely in the various categories of fluff that comprise this Crayola Curriculum."

  • Spanish or Shop? by Joanne Jacobs, March 26th, 2007. "Building a mini-locker for a seventh-grade Spanish class project got her 12-year-old son excited, writes mother Ann Bradley, an Education Week editor, on Motivation Matters. But she discovered most of his grade would be based on writing sentences in Spanish describing the locker contents:
    My son, who desperately wants to do well in school but is still learning that effort equals outcome, was thrilled to get this creative assignment and determined to do his best. He spent hours turning a Nike box into a miniature locker. He spray-painted it blue, made a lock out of tin foil, and filled it with a tiny bulletin board (made by ripping a corner off the one in his room) complete with a tiny note written in Spanish stuck on with a pushpin. He even got our 5-year-old in on the act, who lent him a tiny SpongeBob backpack to hang in the locker.
    Posted comments on this article included:
    • "I thought this was a cute idea until I re-read and realized the project was for a 7th grader, not a 3rd grader. Jeeze, what a waste of time."
    • "I don't understand why a Spanish class gives any points whatsoever for a crafts project. I'm the parent of a kid who is deficient in his crafts skills. It's bad enough that he suffers when neatness, coordination and artistic ability really are required. He shouldn't get penalized again in a foreign language class."
    • "A lot of 'educators' seem to want to turn everyting into arts & crafts; indeed seem a lot more interested in these activities than in the substance of the knowledge they are supposed to be teaching. Yet at the same time the 'education' community is quite hostile to actual shop classes."
    • "At a minimum, if schools are going to grade a child's ability to make craft projects, they should teach kids how to make craft projects instead of leaving it up to parents. Of course, I would prefer my son's school teach academic subjects via reading & writing, not making collages."
    • "Product-oriented learning can be a powerful thing. ... But let's be smart about it. In an academic class, students still need to be evaluated on their competence in the academic standards."

  • At this point, you might be wondering, "How in the world do teachers ever get the notion that silly art projects are a good use of precious instructional time?" Perhaps from the fluffy "coursework" they did in ed school! Consider how one ed school professor from the City University of New York proudly starts an article she wrote in that bastion of modern ed theory, the TC Record:
    "A few times every semester in my undergraduate social foundations courses, I hand out boxes of crayons and paper and invite students to explore educational philosophies, histories, and theories through drawing. The idea behind the aesthetic activity is to encourage students to explore ideas from perspectives other than the linguistic manipulation of ideas, including the simple memorization of facts and concepts on texts. Through the experiences of color, shapes, spatial relationships, and textures, students have academic license to develop visually, as well as linguistically, and articulate their informed opinions."
    -- Mary Bushnell, assistant professor of education, City University of New York, Teachers College Record, Volume 106 Number 1, 2004.

  • One mother posted these useful suggestions to a website:
    Here's my response when the kids bring home a crazy Crayola project: I put a post-it note on the assignment with a note that kindly says
    "I'm so sorry, but (child's name) won't be completing this project. Instead, he/she will (insert age-appropriate assignment here, like writing a short paragraph on fire prevention, for example). If you would like to discuss this issue, don't hesitate to call me. Thanks!"
    Then I call other parents in the class and ask them to do the same thing. Usually at least a few are emboldened knowing that they won't be "the only ones." (Imagine how great it would be if more parents stood up!)

    Proposing an alternative assignment is key; teachers need to know that you're not just trying to punt for your kid. The other key is keeping it polite and friendly.

    At first my kids were mortified (and afraid of the ramifications). But it's led to some good discussions (at home and at school) over what is important about education. And so far (knock on wood), no teacher has retaliated against the kids or downgraded them for their alternative project. (Of course, they think I'm an absolute pain in the ___, but that's a small price to pay.)

    Now my kids actually nip those ridiculous projects in the bud themselves the moment they get the handout. As 9th and 6th graders, they're "actively taking charge of their own learning" -- although I'm sure that's not how the school imagined it would happen!

    ... I'd think that the sooner you shut down these projects, the better! After all, silence can be interpreted as agreement...

Multimedia Extravaganzas

    Take the fadism of projects, filter it through the Crayola Curriculum, and fuel it with the "need" to do something with all those expensive computers that schools have been gorging on, and you get the wonder world of multimedia projects. See our page on computers in schools, particularly the section on the current obsession over PowerPoint.

    For more on low-tech multimedia excesses, see the discussion on our Postermania page.

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