By Ryan Tibbens
Before proceeding, please read this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education in which they detail JMU’s X-Labs class, a new project-based, experience-based, experimental design in which students work collaboratively and creatively. At least read the first half. Okay, fine, here’s the essential concept for you bums: "Tackling big problems is the point of JMU X-Labs, a four-year-old experiment in undergraduate education. Through a blend of interdisciplinary collaboration, project-based learning, and unscripted, open-ended research, each course takes students through the long and often aggravating process of developing new ways of thinking about complex problems. They might design drones to help with environmental problems, tackle foreign-policy challenges, build autonomous vehicles, or develop medical innovations to help with the opioid crisis. If everything goes well, students will produce a prototype of a product, plan, or service in 15 weeks." [Link]
If that sounds interesting, check out the article and JMU X-Labs’ website. If that sounds ridiculous, it might be even more important for you to check out the article because the education pendulum is swinging fast, and project-based and/or interdisciplinary learning (hopefully) is coming next. Whether you want to ride or dodge the pendulum, you should know more about interdisciplinary learning than your school’s mandatory training is providing, including what is happening at the college level.
I find myself in an interesting position because of my age and role as former student and current teacher. See, before No Child Left Behind was implemented, there was already a growing call for some standardization or assessment to merit a high school diploma. I graduated from high school in Pennsylvania in 2001, which means I completed a “Senior Project” as my standard assessment to earn a diploma. Of course, the PSSAs (statewide standardized tests) were introduced soon thereafter, and the project-based graduation requirement went by the wayside. As a student, I neither loved nor hated the Senior Project. I complained about it with all my peers because it was new and because the previous graduating class didn’t have to do it and because none of my teachers seemed too interested. But in process, the work wasn’t bad because I picked something I liked, and I made my own plans, timeline, and goals. The only real requirements were that the project must take a minimum of 100 hours to complete (between freshman and the beginning of senior years), it must yield demonstrations of learning in three or more subject areas (I think), and it must culminate in a 15+ minute formal presentation to school shareholders (teachers, parents, administrators, and community members) with a Q&A at the end. Now, as states try to reduce the number of standardized tests students take (particularly in non-Common Core states like Virginia), “Senior Projects,” internships, and performance-based assessments are all the rage.
While many teachers, students, and researchers will argue that a shift away from the intense, nearly-constant testing of the last two decades is good overall, few seem clear on what should be next. This is usually a discussion about assessment – not learning. Most states and school divisions have no serious plans to abolish the traditional subject areas, to reduce the number of required courses in each subject, or to give students more choice or opportunities to specialize. Public schools (and their governing bodies) seem content to continue the status quo in terms of curriculum and course offerings (after all, they’re noncontroversial, safe, and easy to schedule). Instead of offering real choice, as learners might experience in college or the job market, schools are now promoting more “student voice and choice,” more station work, more targeting of learning styles, and ubiquitous differentiation within each separate subject. And that is insane.
This kind of planning is time intensive and complicated, reducing a teacher’s ability to work one-on-one with students, reducing relationship-building, reducing any potential “authentic” experiences by keeping them divided by subjects, reducing the efficiency of planning and grading. Sure, a project in my English class might include content from history or math, but the students will receive no credit for it in those classes because not all my students are in the same maths or at the same levels or with the same teachers. Instead, they’ll surely be assigned yet another project or learning-style-station activity in that class, further burdening them with time-consuming projects that won’t cross over to other subjects.
Enter true interdisciplinary learning. Rather than have teachers in each subject area pretend to provide choice (I’m serving up one entrée, but you can pick your sauce), why not give students a real opportunity to choose their classes? Why not give them the chance to enroll in a class that exists solely for the purpose of activating their brains through self-selected, interdisciplinary, project-based learning? More and more universities are creating interdisciplinary, project-based courses; more and more companies are looking for young employees with these experiences. These experiences lead to a wide variety of personal and academic growth, and because everything occurs in one class, it is no harder to schedule than anything else. How can we make it happen? While the final goal might be for all school work to take this form, we have to start somewhere. First, offer the interdisciplinary class; then, to make sure students actually enroll, adjust the number of required courses in each subject area, or allow the new class to substitute and earn a credit in whatever subject area the student chooses. Rather than push for more choice inside each strict, narrow subject area, we must give students real choice (while giving teachers expectations they can manage AND giving administrators courses they can facilitate).
“Student voice and choice” within mandatory classes in separate, traditional subject areas is fake, phony, fraudulent. If we really care about student engagement, creativity, and higher order thinking, we need to create a class solely based upon the principles of interdisciplinary, inquiry-based problem-solving. And once we do, I want to teach it.
Extra: For additional commentary on the problems with education dogma, including learning styles, check out ClassCast Podcast Ep.016: Learning Styles < Relationships.
Pictures courtesy of JMUXLabs.org.
Because no one else