by Anthony Cody
When we get students to explore a new topic, their work is guided by the point of view we ask them to take. We also often create a context in which the project challenge is set. This can have a big impact on what our students take away from the project—and sometimes we may not achieve the depth of understanding we are after, or inadvertently reinforce the wrong ideas.
PBL sometimes gets in the news for all the wrong reasons – such as this recent story about a New Jersey school where students were asked to make posters advertising a slave auction, as part of a larger fifth grade project investigating life in colonial America. These posters were hung up in school hallways, with no context or explanation. Parents arriving for an open house event were understandably disturbed, and rightly questioned the message this might send to students.
The report on the controversy raises some important questions for us to reflect on when we design projects for our students. The district’s superintendent said: "Some families are supportive of the example of a slave auction poster included in the assignment, because they see it as an important opportunity to examine this shameful and too-often ignored chapter of American history. Others are disturbed that elementary students were being asked to put themselves in the virtual shoes of people who subjugated others." Students at a young age can dive into the roles we assign. When we ask them to take on the role of a slave master, we ask them (in effect) to embrace that point of view. At the same time we ask them to understand and abhor the immorality of slavery. This is too much to ask of nine year olds.
History Project Ideas Gone Awry
Part of my work as a facilitator of workshops focused on PBL is to advise teachers as they design their own projects for use in their classrooms. Here are some history project ideas I have struggled with recently:
A third grade teacher wanted to do a Thanksgiving season project focused on the meal shared by the pilgrims and the Wampanoag people of Massachusetts. While there was a meal shared by pilgrims and Wampanoags in 1621, the happy tale we learned as school children in years past has been challenged by historians. We need to be careful when project ideas reinforce stories that have been told to justify or cover over the way Native Americans were treated in the process of colonization and settlement of North America.
Along these lines, a middle school teacher proposed designing a project to help students understand westward migration of Europeans in America, and the concept of Manifest Destiny. Students were to choose one of the western territories and create a sales presentation to convince potential settlers to move there.
Many good projects ask students to take on a “real world role.” In this westward migration project, students are taking on the role of a land developer or huckster seeking to make money from those who settle on land that belonged to Native Americans. The context that the project establishes allows students to ignore a major aspect of the westward migration – the fact that these were not empty lands waiting to be populated. They were inhabited by highly functioning indigenous societies, which were destroyed to make room for these settlements. What’s missing is the perspective of the displaced and subjugated people.
A few years ago, a high school history teacher decided that he would have his students respond to a (fictional) request from Egyptian citizens asking them to design a democratic system for their nation. I asked this teacher how the students would come to understand the history and culture of Egypt so they could do this, but he did not feel that was necessary. In this case, there is context that is not being acknowledged – the recent history of the United States asserting its power to impose “democratic” governments on countries of the Middle East and elsewhere. In effect, these students are being asked to emulate this colonialist process.
Who Should the “Problem Solvers” Be?
While asking students to take on a real world role can be valuable, I think we need to think critically about the roles we ask them to assume, and what assumptions we are making about who the “problem solvers” are.
A teacher in a recent workshop designed a project built on the idea that the students at the private school where she taught would investigate a world problem, and, taking on the role of a philanthropist, suggest ways to address that problem. In an era where wealth is more and more concentrated, we have an ever-smaller number of people wielding tremendous power over the lives of those in poverty—and even well-meaning philanthropy is part of this. How will these privileged students come to really understand the problems they are being asked to address? Will they even interact directly with any of the people they are hoping to help? Why would we assume that wealthy people know how to best solve the problems that mostly afflict the poor? When students take on this sort of role, we should try to help them understand the complexities involved.
A project that I think does a better job with this challenge is the one portrayed in this short film, Anatomy of a Project: Give Me Shelter. In this project, high school students were challenged to learn about the sources of homelessness in their community and create short films on the subject. They did this by speaking directly to homeless men and women, and shared the films they made with them, as well as with their parents and community members. Rather than treating the homeless as an abstract problem, they came to understand the people affected, and understand that any one of us could find ourselves in their shoes.
As a facilitator it is not easy to respond to problematic project ideas with compassion and clarity. I want to empower teachers to design their own projects, building on their ideas and passions. When I hear project ideas like the ones above, I respond by asking questions about the roles students will take on, and encourage some thought about the messages we send through these choices. I share sources that challenge traditional “history” lessons like the Thanksgiving myth (see here, here, and here).
When designing history projects, consider these questions:
The problems with the projects described above are not limited to Project Based Learning. Many of the history lessons we have learned and taught over the years are flawed and in drastic need of a fresh look. Projects can be powerful vehicles that allow our students to understand the world in new ways. But our projects need to be designed with care so as not to reinforce or elicit some of the evils of the past.