Where is the line?


by Heather Pang -

Every teacher in every classroom contemplating a project plan faces the question of how much guidance, how many constraints, how much help to give students. I have been thinking about this problem in particular for history projects where the content is specific, for example the invention of the telegraph and its effects on American society.  But I have also been thinking about it in terms of the larger movement, and the role of kits in teaching and learning.

One way to think about this is skills building. I have no problem teaching a specific skills, such as soldering, or correct formatting of a bibliography, with very specific teacher instructions. These tasks are ones that students are going to do many times, and learning to do them the right way and practicing that is not a moment for individual exploration. If everyone solders in their own unique way people get hurt and connections do not get made.  If everyone formats their bibliography in their own unique way then it is not, really a bibliography, and students do not get to participate in the scholarship of history.

At the other end of the spectrum, even if I am specifying some part of the content, there are times when I want students to have pretty free range about what they do, how they show that they have mastered some subject or task, and the only constraint I might have to put on that kind of project is time and materials. Students can design any kind of monument they think represents the woman they pick, they may write any type of reflection (poetry, prose, fiction, nonfiction) in response to their reading of a historical novel, and when they pick a 19th century technology to explain to the class they can do whatever they think will help their classmates understand.

Most projects, however, are not that simple. So back to the telegraph.  I spent some time at CMK this summer learning to build one. And it worked, sort of, if you were not too picky about being able to distinguish between dots and dashes. (Dots were good, but when you held it down a bit longer it tended to get stuck, so the dash never ended.)  I am planning on having students, in pairs, build telegraphs that will allow them to send their dots and dashes at least from one end of the classroom to the other, and maybe farther. When I did it, the biggest challenge was finding the right parts. Some of that was being at a hotel in Manchester. While CMK has an amazing amount of stuff, there was nothing wood that would make a strong base, so I found myself at CVS buying a picture frame, and then back at CMK cutting it up with a Dremmel tool. I have no problem saving my students from that part of the task by pre-cutting the bases on the laser cutter. That is a good use of my time and a very bad use of their time.

But then things get tricky. If all they do is put together what I have assembled following my instructions, then that inhibits their learning. If I hand them a base and tell them to go searching the internet for instructions on how to make a telegraph and then have them searching all over school for the right kinds of metals (need to be magnetic) nails, (iron) wire (right gauge, covered, etc), then how much of that learning is about the technology and how much is about bothering the maintenance staff and running around getting frustrated?

After spending a bit of time worrying about this, I decided that I would start someplace in the middle, and try it this year, and then ask the students what they learned, what they liked, and what might make the lesson better. I will provide the supplies, but not sort them out into kids, and links to several sets of instructions, a brief framework for discussion of the historical circumstances of the invention as it happened in the 19th century. Students will take it from there.

I’ll report back after I do the lesson in February.



Keith Ostfeld's picture

Heather, this is something I struggle with constantly in the Museum. While we want to encourage free-choice learning as much as possible and allow kids to learn through trial-and-error and struggle, there are many limitations for us. Time is one of our largest issues. Kids are there for, at most, a few hours and we have 90,000 sq ft of distractions all around them. We are literally competeing with ourselves. And, we also don't see them on a regular basis, so it isn't like they can work on a project over a series of days or weeks, but need to have something that they can feel they "finished" to feel accomplished and not discouraged in about 30 minutes or less. So, where is that line? Not really sure myself, but this just may inspire a post for me. :-) Good luck!