Tuesday, May 06, 2008

process or product?

Sandy, a fellow teacher and the parent of one of my former students, asked a really good question about my post about constructing curriculum out of children's questions. She writes:

My problem is getting caught up in product and assessment. Should we write a report about Lewis and Clark, or make a play or draw a picture... I have to let go of that and see process as important. But how to balance that - how much am I doing For her, how much should she be doing for Herself. See, I'm a unit planning kind of person - it makes me feel safe and like I know what is going on. I guess that's why people like systems, so they don't feel like they're just doing a bunch of random unconnected stuff that doesn't get synthesized at the end (into a research paper!) That final synthesis of learning seems like an important step.

This is something I struggle with, too, and I'm not at all sure I'm doing this right. I am really just starting out on this home schooling gig.

First of all, I'm open to the kids writing a report, or putting on a play, or making illustrations for a book of some kind. We're not done with Lewis and Clark, and I don't yet know where it's going to take us. I may even insist on it: a recent post at Mother Crone's Homeschool has got me thinking a lot about the importance of developing kids' ability to persevere, and seeing a project through to its logical conclusion, even if they're excited about something new, can help kids learn to develop that persistence. When I was teaching, I would have certainly insisted that every child participate in some kind of final project.

But now that I'm not teaching other people's kids, I have to ask myself why that final synthesis was necessary. One obvious purpose of an end-project is to assess a child's learning. In a classroom of 15 kids, I needed that. I was pretty familiar with what every kids was learning, but not completely on top of every little detail. Not so with teaching my kids at home. It would be pretty hard to miss seeing where they're missing something.

Another purpose was always to report to parents about what the kids were learning. We would make posters, or put on a presentation, or write a book, and that became something I could show parents when they were wondering what we were doing. This, obviously, is completely out the window. I'm the teacher-parent, I know exactly what we're doing, and Joe, bless him, trusts me completely.

There's another important feature of classroom learning that is just missing from our experience at home. Lots of final synthesis projects were designed to give kids who hadn't yet taken part a piece of the action. It's the same reason we would do the same topic in lots of different ways: a hands-on experiment, books from the library, a field trip, an expert from the university visiting the classroom. These are called 'multiple entry points' in the trade, and they really serve to make sure that every kid gets something out of a unit study. Some kids are more into book learning, some are more into field trips, some kids need a hands-on experience, and some kids will only pull it together if you ask them to write a report or a book about it.

My kid is like me: he's a book learner.

But I am having this sinking feeling right now, that even though I know that's true, and he's perfectly capable of gleaning huge amounts of information from books, that we'd all be having more fun if we were doing some of those other things I just described.

So, thanks to Angela and Sandy, looks like I need to rethink some of what we're doing.


Angela said...

You make many good points here, and many I have argued over the years. While I am totally opposed to busy work and product focus learning, there does come a point where the kids need to learn to turn their learning (reading) into a project. There is great benefit also to stepping outside one's comfort zone. to develop new skills. You'd be amazed at how well the kids can stretch once they try! I have come to this point of clarity over this long process (we're entering out twelfth year homeschooling!)

Jennifer C said...

I think it is important to teach how to discern the possible end point(s) in a project and then bring it to conclusion. This is going to be one of the skills my kids will use frequently in life - no matter what profession they choose.

And this makes me remember that organizational skills are not always organic or intuitive for kids. Teaching project management is one of the areas where I venture from the unschooling model.

In my previous careers, I saw many colleagues having difficulty with organization. I observed that some people were never taught organization and could have benefitted as students if someone had spent time teaching these skills.

shaun said...

I really liked Angela's post too -- though I'm just venturing out of illness and haven't said so on her blog! -- and I noticed that she mentioned "12" as the age that she started emphasizing more perseverance. My 9yo seems so old some days and so young on others -- it's good for me to think frequently about age-appropriate expectations regarding perseverance in things she hasn't chosen to do on her own.

As before, Elsie, I really like to see you untangle the differences between classroom teaching -- even in an "alternative" school -- and homeschooling. It really helps me think more clearly about whether we're doing something because I have some vague feeling that we *ought* too ("well, if she were in school she'd have to . . .") or if it serves a real educational need for my specific learners.

Sandy said...

Shaun, yes, I guess you have to think about why you're having the student create an end product (or do anything!). So so much of traditional school is busy work, it is true. I like Jennifer's comment about organizational skills - I explicitly teach organization to 12th graders. I also believe synthesis to be an important step in the analytical process, which is my main reason to do it. Making some sort of final product also requires paying attention to detail - harder for some children than others. Real life (ha, I can't believe I just wrote that!) requires effective communication of ideas, which a final product helps you learn to do.
So then, who chooses the product, and what happens if it is always the same thing - I guess that is where Angela takes charge...

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I wonder if having a book learner do a project would help bring balance to that intellectual style. I can see that my son, for example, loves books and is almost ready to learn to read, but he's also good with drawing and fine motor stuff. So I might be tempted to work with those skills, yet also make sure he's doing a lot of gross motor movement and "field work" outside. I have also observed his pride when he finishes a complicated drawing, or perseveres in learning something, like shooting the bow and arrow we made out of sticks and yarn yesterday. There is definitely something to be said for planning a larger, longer term project and working through it.

Evenspor said...

To use the example of writing a paper - wouldn't the point of ending a unit on Lewis and Clark with writing a paper be as much to learn and/or practice writing skills and how to synthesize what was learned with writing?

shaun said...

Just to be clear, for Sandy, when I was thinking about "oughts" based on traditional school models, I wasn't thinking "busy work" so much as the "multiple entry points" and "demonstration for the parents" parts of classroom work, which seem like further examples of the specialized skill set needed for classroom teaching.

On the other hand, one thing the district gifted specialist told us on our way out the door was that gifted kids (and probably most kids) do well with having a "genuine audience," so when I think "product" I tend to think that way.

Which may be why I was just at Kinko's having $2.50 copies of V.'s new zombie comic ("Arise!" -- great title) printed so she can sell them for 50 cents to her friends.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the ability to synthesise and write and whatnot are important, I'm not convinced they are necessary for every project. I also don't think it is necessary to be so concerned about completeness for every topic you cover, particularly with younger children.

My daughter is approaching 11 and we've started talking about the importance of having products for various reasons as well as the importance of really working on a writing piece as a way of consolidating her learning. I am not expecting her to write reports on what she is learning though. I'm starting with asking for shorter pieces of writing on some aspect of it. As one of the things we might do. And to develop her writing skills.

I think when you strip away the necessity to demonstrate the learning to someone else, you can start to ask how many of those kinds of products you need to produce. Clearly by the time she is 16, that sort of thing is going to be more important, particularly if she is going to pursue more academic study (e.g. university). But at 10? I'm working on getting her there in a way that doesn't involve unlearning a simplistic model to relearn a more complex model of writing about something. Right now she can write a couple of good paragraphs that really engage with an aspect of the topic. Total coverage? Nope. Not more than superficially which isn't useful for anyone.