This Mom Needed Advice

because her daughter wouldn’t do projects. Part of the mom’s plea for advice:

I need some help, Moms! My 11 year old daughter refuses to do school projects. She is in 5th grade & does her classwork & homework just fine, but will not do her projects! She has been turning them in late all year long & I always end up doing a lot of the work just to make sure it gets done. I’ve talked to her teacher & she has made accomodations for her as she is ADD (just attention no hyper). She is on meds & it does help her stay on task when doing things but it’s not a magic pill that gets her to do something she plain out doesn’t want to do. I’ve punished her, yelling to the point where I’m crying from frustration & she’s crying because she doesn’t like to be yelled at, taken away priveleges, tried reward systems, etc. Nothing seems to work! She already stays in at recess to work on them but I feel that’s not fair to the teacher, or the other kids that do the work at home like they’re supposed to. At this rate she is never going to survive in Middle School, as I’m sure they won’t accomodate her to the point that her teacher now does & I don’t even want to think about High School. I’m at my witts end & I don’t know how to get her to realize that just like homework & classwork it needs to be done. She says it’s stupid.

Lots of people give this mother advice, mainly consisting of letting the daughter experience failing grades as the consequence of not doing projects.

What no one says: maybe the daughter is exactly right that her assignments are stupid. No one questions the sanity of a schooling system in which children are routinely asked to do inane projects on the pretext that it’s going to benefit them.

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This Parent Isn’t Happy

about school projects. Enjoy a rant here:

. . . I suddenly realized that my Mom wasn’t born with this science project talent. Rather she developed it by doing all my projects throughout elementary school. Is this the real reason that we have projects? So parents can learn how to do projects for their kids. Science fair night at Buttonball School in Glastonbury will likely be nothing more than three dozen parents all looking at the projects and seeing who’s the most talented parent. Which started me thinking about some school projects that I’d like to do…

Here are some science projects that I’d like to see:

How quickly would the schools stop assigning independent projects if, as parents, we came up with some real life projects. The type of project that actually sheds light on how parent’s are responsible for almost all projects – and NOT their kids.

These could also be projects that are “fun” for parents.

Teacher and Administrator Pay Analysis: Compute the true value of teacher pay by annualizing it with vacations, summers off, half days and shortened days factored in. Most of this information is freely available from the town. Imagine the look on the face of your child’s teacher as he walks by your display and spots his annualized salary – increased for time off, in service, summer vacations – on display for all to see.

Sure, teachers have tough jobs. So do most of us. Too bad I don’t get out of work on a regular basis at 1:05. How cool would this science project be?

Mr. Smith’s Annual Salary – $50,000

Mr. Smith’s Annual Salary $50,000 + value of early dismissals $10,000 + summer vacation $20,000 + school vacations $2,000 = $82,000

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From a Facebook friend . . .

We just finished [daughter’s] first grade Christmas Tradition poster. Once again more effort went into this project than many of my college assignments, but I really outdid myself this time. I wonder if it sent the wrong message when she went to re-arrange something and I shouted out at her to stop messing up my work?

Some educators seem oblivious to the fact that even if making a poster had much educational value, that value is going to the parents most of the time, not the children.

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Another post from Britain

This British teacher doesn’t think too highly of certain projects:

As a history teacher, I was attracted to such titles as A Classical Education: The Stuff You Wish You’d Been Taught at School and Remember, Remember (The Fifth of November): The History of Britain in Bite-Sized Chunks. From the publisher’s website, it turns out the ‘nostalgic series’ has sold over 1.1 million copies. The fact they are selling so well shows the yearning amongst certain members of the public to teach themselves the traditional, even classical education, which schools today fail to provide.

Whilst teaching history, I am desperate to spend my lessons enthusing pupils about the stuff of the past: stories, events, characters and changes. However, the National Curriculum and GCSE exams, not to mention inspections from SMT, conspire to prevent me from doing this. Whilst I want to pass on a significant knowledge of history to my pupils, I am expected instead to give them skills: the spurious skill of source analysis to spot bias at one hundred yards; the skills of collaboration to model Hitler and Stalin out of Play-Doh; and the skill of empathy to sit in a puddle and consider what life was like as a medieval peasant.

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Graphic Novels in Honors Classes

This isn’t about projects per se, but is in keeping with the broader theme of dumbing down education.  From the Chicago Tribune:

In honors English class at Alan B. Shepard High School, sophomores are analyzing Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” with the help of another book filled with drawings and dialogue that appears in bubbles above characters’ heads.

“Capote in Kansas” is what generations of kids would recognize as a comic book, though it has a fancier name — a graphic novel.

That honors students at the Palos Heights high school are using it illustrates how far the controversial comic-strip novels have come in gaining acceptance in the school curriculum, educators say.

Once aimed at helping struggling readers, English language learners and disabled students, graphic novels are moving into honors and college-level Advanced Placement classrooms and attracting students at all levels.

. . .

“You’re always going to have the traditionalists say comic books aren’t real literature, and I guess to a certain extent they have a point,” he said. “But my point is that it is different literature. It is visual literature, and I’d be failing my kids if I didn’t train them for all the visual reading they do today.”

Um, kids in honors classes should already be able to read comic books. They don’t need to go to school for that.

Where do teacher get the idea that they need to “prepare” or “train” kids to do something that 1) is a waste of time, and that 2) the kids are already better at than the teachers? What’s next, a class on text messaging or how to play Guitar Hero?

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Hitler Cartoons, for High School Students

This may be the dumbest project idea ever. It comes from a British website (via this blogger):

The following activity is a great way of rounding off or revising the Rise of Hitler with IGCSE students. They produce a ‘Mr. Men’ book about the topic and then read these to primary school / Year 7 students in a team challenge.

A. Prior to the Activity

Pre-activity preparation for Year 11

Prior to this activity, Year 11 students should have finished studying the Rise of Hitler. They should then spend classroom time discussing in pairs and groups how they could transform the narrative into a ‘Mr. Men’ story that younger students would be able to understand.

The following steps are a useful framework:

Brainstorm the key people involved (Hitler, Hindenburg, Goering, Van der Lubbe, Rohm…). Discuss their personalities / actions in relation to the topic. Bring up a picture of the Mr. Men characters on the board. Discuss which characters are the best match.
Brainstorm the key events that took place (Backstairs Intrigue, Reichstag Fire, Night of the Long Knives, Army’s oath of loyalty…). Discuss how these could be turned into analogies that would fit into a Mr. Man format. At this point it is a good idea to watch one of the original Mr. Men cartoons (easily located on YouTube or purchasable online as a DVD) to get them thinking along the right lines.

There’s more at the link.

If you’re not familiar with the “Mr. Man” cartoons, here’s an example:


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More on British History Classes

More from the article on British history classes:

Progressive educators tend to cast skills and knowledge as a dichotomy, when in reality they are a sequence, and knowledge must come first. Trying to exercise historical skills such as source analysis or understanding causation without a solid grounding in a historical topic is impossible. It is like trying to run before you can walk. Pupils find the whole process frustrating and confusing.

This became clear to me when I taught a class of 13-year-olds about Napoleon. Still under the baleful influence of my training, I started the lesson by showing them a source — Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting Napoleon in his Study. I then asked them to infer from this source what sort of man Napoleon was. The class fell about laughing at his effete stance and tight trousers, and repeatedly inferred that he must be gay. I angrily explained that he enjoyed a particularly passionate marriage to a lady called Josephine, and asked them to infer something else. There was a pause. “You must admit, he does look pretty camp,” came the next response.

My pupils could not take an interest in Napoleon because they did not know his story. With minimal context offered, one of the greatest figures of modern European history appeared to them as remote and risible. I decided that for the next lesson I would photocopy “The Last Conqueror”, a chapter on Napoleon in Ernst Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. We read it as a class, and they were fascinated: “How could so many French soldiers die retreating from Russia? . . . How was Napoleon allowed to give his brothers whole countries to rule? . . . Why were the English allied with the Germans at Waterloo?” Facts are easily derided, but facts are what make history come alive. Only when pupils become interested in them will the skills begin to emerge.

And then there’s this clincher:

Today, traditional history lessons are invariably seen as boring, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Have you ever heard someone reminisce about an inspiring history teacher who was a “guide on the side”? Great history teachers draw upon a passion for and knowledge of the subject to tell stories, explain ideas and bring the past alive. They do not have to rely on nonsense “learning activities” to make the subject engaging, for discussing the story of humankind is interesting in its own right. In short, they teach from the front.

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Timewasting Projects in British History Classes

“Progressive” education has apparently deeply infected British schools too, with the stupid projects replacing actually asking kids to learn much of anything. Consider this article about how history classes are conducted in Britain:

Instead of learning through listening to teachers or reading books, pupils are expected to do so through projects. It did not take me long to work out why pupils are so ignorant of British history, despite spending over a year studying it (as laid down by the national curriculum). To study the Norman Conquest, pupils would re-enact the Battle of Hastings in the playground, conduct a classroom survey to create their own Domesday Book, and make motte-and-bailey castles out of cereal boxes. Medieval England would be studied through acting out the death of Thomas Becket, and creating a boardgame to cover life as a medieval peasant. For the Industrial Revolution, pupils pitched inventions to Dragons’ Den and lessons on the British Empire culminated in the design of a commemorative plate showing whether it was or was not a “force for good”.

Such tasks allow pupils to learn about history in an enjoyable and engaging way—or so the theory goes. In reality, all content and understanding of the past is sucked out, and the classroom begins to resemble the playground. An unfortunate side-effect is that pupils are frequently confused by the inevitable anachronisms involved in making history “relevant”. “Sir, how many Victorians would have had a TV?” I was asked. Imaginative tasks and projects can be excellent supplements to a history lesson, but when they become the mainstay of classroom activity, the consequences are disastrous.

Wait for the most stunning part:

Proponents of child-centred education are impervious to such criticism because progressive teachers have long denied the importance of knowledge in the first place. Instead, skills are seen as paramount. When I first visited my current school, the assistant head asked me how I intended to prepare for my new career. I responded that I was going to spend a few weeks boning up on my general historical knowledge. “I wouldn’t worry about that,” she said. “History is a skills-based curriculum. You should really be able to teach it without knowing anything at all.”

Wow. With such anti-intellectualism rampant among educators, it’s a wonder that children learn anything.

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From Britain: Projects Lead to MORE Rote Learning

That’s the argument of this post:

Here is a Geography lesson that Ofsted praise (from Learning to make a world of difference, p.36).

Two pupils, in role, acted as newsreaders during an introductory simulation of a newscast. This used a PowerPoint backdrop and updated the rest of the class on the conflict. The teacher sat in the ‘hot seat’, acting as an expert to reflect on and clarify the issues. The pupils had a very good understanding of the differences between Hamas and Fatah and the tensions between Arabs and Israelis in the conflict. Having exemplified the role of an ‘expert witness’, three pupils who had prepared scripts sat in ‘hot seats’. Groups of pupils interviewed these experts – ‘Is this an Arab/Israeli child?’; ‘What are their concerns and worries?’ and so on. This enabled pupils to develop a fresh perspective on the conflict and use their speaking, listening and questioning skills. They were able to explain the conflict through the eyes of children living within it today. In the lesson described here, the pupils’ work was outstanding because the teacher had high expectations.

What will pupils be thinking about in this lesson? I would guess that they would spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to present the news, about being ‘in role’, about what a newsreader sounds like, about how to do the PowerPoint backdrop, about the best way to prepare their script, etc. That’s not to say that those things might not be important. But are they really the aim of a Geography lesson? If you asked those pupils in a week’s time what they remembered, would they have remembered anything to do with the Middle East?

The other thing to note about these types of lessons is that they very often have a huge opportunity cost. This isn’t apparent sometimes when you read quick summaries of them in these Ofsted reports. For example, here’s an activity Ofsted praise in English (from Moving English forward, p.33):

‘practical tasks such as making and using puppets as part of the Romeo and Juliet work.’

Making puppets? It’s a brief throwaway line, but it would probably take quite a few lessons to make the puppets. For most of that time, the pupils would be thinking about the mechanics of making puppets, not the plot, language or themes of Romeo and Juliet. Again, there is nothing wrong in and of itself with making puppets. But in an English lesson where the aim is to advance understanding of one of Shakespeare’s plays, then the activity is misplaced. The time spent making puppets is a huge opportunity cost – it’s time the pupils could have spent actually improving and deepening their understanding of Romeo and Juliet.

One irony to note is that these types of lessons are often presented as imaginative alternatives to dull rote-learning. In actual fact, I think that it is this kind of lesson plan and unit of work which does lead to dull rote-learning. In the Shakespeare puppet lesson, the pupils will have spent several lessons where they haven’t learnt any English knowledge or skills. The important knowledge and skills will be hurried and squeezed into just a few lessons, probably in quite a mechanistic way. If there is an assessment on this unit, then because there has not been enough time in the lessons to think about these facts in a meaningful way, the only solution for the pupil who wants to revise is to rote-learn them – that is, to learn the facts in a way that is stripped of meaning. If you waste class time on tangential and distracting activities, then pupils will end up rote-learning – and probably rote-mislearning – the important knowledge and skills that they should have been taught meaningfully.

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Are Stupid Administrators to Blame?

Here’s a theory from a commenter at the Core Knowledge blog:

In my district there is a feedback form which administrators use when they walk through a classroom. The administrator attempts to identify and mark what level of Bloom’s the teacher is teaching to. It is considered superior to be at the higher levels, no matter what students are “creating” or “evaluating”.  

Creating a poster is far more superior than learning the fundamentals of linear equations, because students are “creating”, regardless of the content.  Bloom’s taxonomy, along with others, has become so misinterpreted and misapplied that many teachers and administrators believe students can apply higher-order thinking without the necessary knowledge.

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