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
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:
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.
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
- 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
- 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!)
- "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
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
Some real examples:
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.
- 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
- 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.
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
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.
- "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
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
"Nurturing The Life Of The Mind: If Schools Don't Value Intellect, Who Will?"
American School Board Journal (cover story), National School Boards Association,
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?
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
"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."
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
- "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
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
- "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
- 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..."
The Crayola Curriculum
The replacement of academics with endless "artwork" and "creative"
projects has engendered a new and very descriptive label:
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.