How to measure progress in project based learning.
For teachers in the UK it is the middle of the holiday and few of us are yet thinking about school, at least I hope that is the case. In an earlier post I shared the difficulties that Design Technology has with the use of learning objectives; those single line statements that we share with pupils about what it is that they will be learning during the course of the lesson. In principle what this means is that our pupils know exactly what they are learning, what it is they will do to show that they have achieved this and how this bit of learning fits into the overall picture or leads them to progress in their understanding of the subject. (If you work well with mnemonics WALT, WILF and TIBs; “we are learning to”, “what I am looking for”, “this is because”.) For design education this poses a problem, many of the lessons in a typical school might well involve pupils in carrying on with the making, so what are they learning and how do you set learning objectives?
In conversation with teachers from other subject communities I realised that similar problems exist for anyone attempting to do project based learning, how do you capture the learning objective for a class who might all be doing different things and certainly might be learning different things? A large swathe of teachers agree that this kind of learning is important but not all can articulate why they believe it to be so. For me the answer lies in two significant ideas, the first is that factual knowledge of itself is of limited use whereas the skills to handle knowledge are vital, the second is that I do not attempt to teach my children design I try to teach them to operate as designer makers.
To anyone who knows me the first idea may come as a bit of a shock, I have a head stuffed full of almost useless bits of information on some arcane subjects, a family failing. (I think it should be called Steerpike Syndrome after the character in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels who cynically determines to know enough about almost every subject to impress whomever he comes into contact with.) However the search for knowledge is not an end in itself but a constant desire to understand, in other words to fit knowledge into, and extend my mental map of the world. It is this map that I use to work with problems, situations and people. Because I have learned to manage my own learning I can identify and locate information that I might need, it is surely what I do with this information that counts.
The second idea is of course closely connected; at root is an understanding of knowledge that assumes that different disciplines work in slightly different ways. If you want to pursue the philosophy look out for the work of Paul Hirst, probably hard to find now. I am also convinced that it is perfectly possible to learn to function in a variety of ways. Most teachers are familiar with the idea of multiple intelligences through the work of Gardener but some operate as if these were a set of categories into which it is possible to place pupils. My view is that it is quite reasonable to expect to be able to learn to operate in any of these ways and to select the appropriate mode for any given problem. If this is the case then I am trying to teach my pupils to be capable of thinking and functioning as designers, not in the expectation that they will all become professional designers but in the belief that they will be able to use this way of thinking in any appropriate situation. Of course there are people whose preference for working in one particular way is extremely strong for a wide variety of reasons; an individual for whom choice is threatening will find it impossible to deal with the fluid and complex nature of design decisions and there will be other comparable situations.
So where do these ideas take us when it comes to the learning objective? The simple answer is that you focus on the process, the skills, the knowledge handling practices as the significant learning. In the UK we have personal learning and thinking skills built into our current curriculum, whether they will survive the current political pressure to return to knowledge is a different matter. It is relatively easy to frame a body of learning in terms of factual coverage and it is certainly easy to test in that domain, the bigger question is does it serve the purpose of a modern education system? The problem of framing learning objectives for this type of learning situation is that we have not been used to doing it and in some cases we have not thought about our subject in this way before. For design educators we have all too often allowed ourselves to be lulled into the old model of showing pupils how to do something and then letting them do it. To be sure there is a value in this, certainly an excitement if the process is interesting, fascinating or slightly dangerous. The important issue is what the child is learning, not what they are doing. I constantly find myself going back to when I learnt something, to what was going on in my head while I was doing it, to what I now see as significant about that process.
At a later stage when pupils are designing an making individuasl projects it is only necessary to think about the way in which you would be working while carrying out the same activity to arrive at a useful learning objective; when a pupil is using the designs of others then you would hope that they would be learning to use design analysis to shape their own ideas, whewn they are making what they have designed then you might chose to set the objective of learning how to work to their own designs. If we change to a project based topic in another subject then we should consider the way in which we might go about it and set objectives accordingly. For example, at a certain point in the process you might realise that what you are doing is finding information which you then sort while you build your understanding before committing yourself to planning a structure. The greatest resource in working in this way is your own experience of learning and working within your subject, analyse how you learn and use this as the starting point for learning objectives.