There are very few things that are common to people all over the world, regardless of nationality, race, ability, or gender. One of these is the effectiveness of the project method of teaching. Although different children have their own individual style of learning, there is a particular level of effectiveness that "hands-on" learning achieves, that cannot be denied.
There are children who learn best by seeing, or by listening, or even by reading/writing. These are different styles of learning, visual, auditory and reading/writing styles, namely. However, the hands-on learning approach, which is referred to as the kinesthetic learning style, is often overlooked for various reasons. This method of learning often involves proactive efforts on the part of the teachers and educators. It is majorly ignored as a legitimate teaching method in most schools because of this reason.
Often, it is incorporated into one or two classes, as a "fun activity" rather than a more permanent method of teaching. Science projects and fairs for example fall under this category. Children often struggle to accomplish anything at these fairs unless they have prior experience with working hands-on. This creates a barrier to children"s ability to apply what they learn, resulting in an exam-oriented study pattern, wherein they often forget what they have studied soon after their tests. Not just that, this kind of education creates a generation that is often unsure about what work they want to do, as a result of not applying their knowledge for years together.
It is thus important to incorporate a teaching method that encourages children to do, before they simply load information into their brains. Such a hands-on or kinesthetic mode of learning can be inculcated through a project/task based learning style. When it comes to studying science, this is particularly important, especially among the younger children in elementary/primary school. This is a crucial stage whereby children"s perception of the subject, and largely the idea of education itself, gets unconsciously formed. The director of the CREATE for STEM institute, and professor at Michigan State University, Joseph S. Krajcik, points out how the introduction of science as a formal body of knowledge, rather than as a way to understand the world around them, affects children"s experience of and approach to science negatively.
“Kids, unfortunately, are introduced to science like it"s a body of knowledge. But science is so much more than that. Science is all about trying to figure out how things work. In many respects, project-based learning mirrors what scientists do, right, trying to answer a really important question or to figure out what"s going on with some phenomena.”
Teachers have even witnessed how children"s attitude to the subject matter visibly changes in a project-based setting. Children start to engage more, and be more invested in the class, when it is not simply read out to them by the teacher in the traditional lecture style of learning. Funnily, such an approach can even positively impact children"s approach to the traditional lecture classes itself! An education outreach specialist from the Michigan State University, Deborah-Peek Brown, echoes this observation. “We did cookbook experiments that usually were just validating whatever we talked about in class. When you go into a multiple-literacies and project-based-learning science class, you see something very different. You see kids that are engaged in asking questions and trying to solve problems. So, we saw just in the classroom, kids getting excited about reading, because they were excited about the topic, because it was something that was related to what they were trying to figure out.”
The most important effect that project-based learning has, is that, it makes learning purpose driven. Science is mostly the answer to a nagging question – how something works, why something happens, etc. Instead of word-action associations, such as “add when it says and”, “multiply when it says times”, reason driven learning can be achieved through project-based learning methods. This also allows children to develop their interest in the subject matter outside of the classroom, allowing them to think of real-world problems and solutions of their own accord, rather than simply as a part of graded assignments in school.
Peek-Brown suggests that teachers adopt this very approach. “So, for teachers who are just starting out, just changing your instruction to say, "We"re trying to answer this question today," so that it gives purpose to what the kids are learning. That power of "I can figure things out for myself," is such an important skill for kids to develop that they will be using for the rest of their lives.”
Enabling Project-Based and Kinaesthetic Learning
One important structural aspect that hinders the implementation of project-based learning is the incentive that teachers have to do this. Teaching, one of the most significant professions, is not valued as much as it should be. This devalues the morale of most teachers, specifically in public schools in India, where such teaching methods would actually find fruit rather than textbook learning. The lack of value is not simply in monetary terms, but rather in terms of dignity, and interest. Employment of good teachers in schools where children generally have a hard time focusing on their education because of family/economic troubles outside of the classroom, is crucial. Teachers need to be trained and encouraged to develop new teaching methods, and to invest more energy and time into developing more engaging class plans, such as project-based teaching.
Another way to incorporate project-based learning in children"s education, is by motivating the parents to undertake this as well. Homework is often a joint activity for the parent and the child, which is not always a pleasant experience for either of them. Creating a plan of projects that could be done at home, and encouraging parents to get on board this teaching style, could also enable better learning in a much more relaxed setting such as the playground, or even the kitchen in their homes.
In most classrooms, across education levels and sectors, the subject matter is taught through text and lecture, after which students are asked to demonstrate their knowledge through a project that they each individually or in teams, get to work on. However, this approach must be flipped to enable project-based learning. The experiment or project needs to be the core of the class – not an extra – whereby the students learn the subject matter through the project before they read the text.
Another engaging method of teaching through projects is by involving people from outside the school – experts, or even entertainers. A history project could be introduced by someone who is playing the role of a historic character in a play, making the subject matter and the project, both, much more interesting and colorful.
Similarly, taking students outside of the classroom setting also ignites their interest. Children appreciate novelty, and thus, unconventional methods. Science projects in a park are a lot more fun for children than projects in a science lab. The language that is used to describe phenomenon, and the tone that the teacher adopts are also crucial to making project-based learning more fun and inviting for children to participate in.
Finally, rather than adhering to a strict class-plan, teachers must allow students to carry the course of the class as well. Questions, discussions and inputs from children must be encouraged to allow for real learning to take place – while ensuring that the main subject matter of the class has been imparted to all the students. It could also help to spend a little more time catering to individual students" needs, devising changes in their projects to make the learning more effective for them.