Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Is School Enough? Of Course Not, But Its Role Is Important

Cheryl S. Williams's picture

I recently attended a screening of a documentary titled Is School Enough? that’s scheduled to air on local PBS stations in early September.  The film profiled four project based learning activities that took students outside the classroom to identify real life challenges, propose solutions, and work together as a team under the guidance of their teacher to solve the problem and learn while doing.  (View a preview)

The projects were exciting and impressive, and the students involved were either economically disadvantaged or in an alternative education program.  In one program a group of students became “citizen scientists,” using their smart phones to photograph plants and trees in an area that was to house a couple of elephants who were retiring from a circus.  These students gathered data on the plants, shared the information with a scientist at Cornell University, and then convened with the scientist using Skype so he could answer their questions and provide suggestions for removing or replacing those plants that could prove toxic to the soon to arrive elephants.

Another project involved inner city students whose class had been given a vacant lot between two warring churches.  The students had to evaluate what was needed in the neighborhood where the lot was located; gather information from the community on suggested uses for the space; and plan, design, and build the space into something that would contribute a positive resource to a blighted spot in the city.  The students named their space “Switzerland” to indicate it was neutral ground that was open to all input and points of view.

A third project showcased the “Harry Potter Alliance” that drew fans of the Potter series together to encourage civic engagement guided by the values embodied by Harry Potter and his friends in the books.  The students used the power of the internet to foster community building and to share challenges and successes among the students who were leading local efforts as part of the Alliance activities.

All of the projects were successful in engaging students in activities that were structured for their learning. And they certainly showcased the power of students to direct their own development when they’re given real world challenges and guided by enlightened teachers.

What the film did not provide was the context in which the activities showcased could fit with the formal schooling that all states require to graduate with a high school diploma and proceed with further schooling or work experience.  Certainly, it did profile students who are most often disengaged by traditional schooling and for whom alternative routes are needed.  Among the unanswered questions were, how might the project based learning approach be integrated into the school curriculum?  How might more students be included?  What does the traditional curriculum provide that’s missing from these project based activities?  How can we honor what’s important in current educational practice and ensure that important skills, readings, and mental challenges aren’t discarded or demeaned as we move towards more varied approaches to engaging hard to engage students?

As career educators know too well, it is challenging to engage every single learner to be self-motivated and approach every academic activity with enthusiasm and commitment.  Some teacher led assignments would not be chosen by a student and still turn out to be assignments worth doing and impart knowledge worth having.  Where does the wisdom of the adult and the curriculum come to play in activities chosen and directed by the student?

Both “traditional educator led programs” and “student led project based activities” need to be part of a rich educational experience.  What’s the balance?  How do we structure such a program to include all students?  I left the screening with more questions than answers.