Thursday, March 22, 2012

Project Based Learning vs. Transfer

Demon Robotics Team 4342
A few weeks ago, I judged a FIRST robotics competition. Since I participated on my high school team many moons ago (Go 272!), I knew what to expect. It's basically 2 days of nonstop competition, cheering, and fun.

Most schools have robotics teams as after-school clubs or activities. During the 6 week "build season," kids can spend 6-7 days at school, welding, wiring, and writing code for their robots. It is an immersive, exhilarating experience.

Seeing the high levels of student engagement and student competence at the competition always makes me wonder: Could activities like this be a replacement for traditional schooling?

On some levels, I believe that school should be more like a FIRST robotics competition. Yes, school should be engaging. Yes, it should be fun. However, completing a project in one context does not equate to rigorous learning.

Project based learning is always "hands on" but is it always "minds on?" 

When we teach using projects, we scaffold and assist students. We help them be successful and guide their learning. BUT, do we ever give them opportunities to transfer their learning independently to novel situations? If not, we are not expecting enough of our students.

The FIRST robotics competition is an incredible experience for high school students. However, it's not a replacement for well designed instruction that fosters understanding and transfer. Could it be redesigned around these principles? Absolutely! Is it perfect "as is" or "out of the box?" Not yet.


  1. My first thought when I read this is, how do we know that they aren't transferring this knowledge? The act of creating, of failing, of redesigning is very "minds on," and teaches the critical thinking skills that so many students lack. So many concepts that are in robot building can be easily applied to other situations, but that I guess is the crux of the matter. Are we pushing our students to know that - so in the end I agree with you :)

    1. Bethany, I think you hit the nail on the head here. It's not that students can't transfer these activities. It's that we don't ask them to. Transfer involves independently transferring learning independently to a novel situation. It doesn't negate projects as great learning experiences; it just requires more. Thanks for joining the conversation and pushing my thinking!

    2. I think Bethany hits it exactly - this is an activity where the skills and concepts DO apply to other situations. The castle I built out of sugar cubes and frosting in 10th grade? Not so much - unless you count the problem solving we learned when we ran out of pre-made frosting and made our own! Project based learning should be learning with a purpose. If you give the kids a project just to give them a project, you really aren't engaging the kids or teaching them anything.

    3. Andrea, you make a good point. The challenges we give to students must be worthy of their time and attention. The difficult question is this: How do we know that students are transferring? What types of independent tasks can we give students after the project is over to measure this? That is the missing piece I think. Any ideas?

    4. I actually think it comes down to the relevance of the assigned project to the content goals and the thinking processes that go into it. We had a largely project-based Social Studies curriculum from 8th-10th grades in the district where I attended school. The teacher that required us to write a newspaper from 1916, complete with political cartoons and editorials, had us analyzing and synthesizing. The teacher that had us building a castle out of sugar was keeping us busy for 3 days. I can now talk knowledgably about WWI, and know very little about medieval dwellings and why they might have been important. So it may not be what we do AFTER the project, but how we structure the project that is important.

    5. Great point. I think the question is: How do we have a "40 year" effect instead of a "40 day" effect? (with 40 days being the typical length of most units) As you stated based on personal experience, WE as teachers can control that.



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