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PBL and Citizenship Education

Keith Heggart High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

I'm not sure that this is the right place to put this discussion, but it's the best that I could find, so here goes:

I'm gradually becoming greatly concerned about the increase in formalized structures regarding schools and education. As I see it, this is occurring in both Australia (with mySchool, NAPLAN etc) and the US (NCLB, Race to the Top etc) as well as a lot of other countries around the world.

The reason for my concern is simple: this increased accountability, removal of context, insistence on standardization and stricter, narrower curriculum to enforce higher literacy and numeracy standards (which don't often eventuate) is actually doing our students a disservice.

Basically, I'm a firm believer that, like Dewey suggests, democracy is not a static process; democracy must be constantly fought for - and I mean much more than simply voting, or choosing not to. However, traditionally, schools served as places for students to learn the skills to enact democracy. They learned to debate and argue, question, challenge, protest etc etc.

However, certainly in Australia, and starting at a young age, we are gradually removing these opportunities, replacing them with an insistence on more literacy, more numeracy, more practice at taking tests so that we can prove students have learned something that we can measure, regardless of its value.

Has anybody out there seen that happening in their school? What can we do about it?

Perhaps PBL might offer the answer? Can anyone give some examples of PBL or other work that supports the growth of active citizenship?

I know that this can be quite an emotive topic; please accept my assurances that I am seeking an honest discussion - and some ideas! I have no intention of offending anyone.

Keith.

Comments (3)

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Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

PBL for engaged, informed and effective citizens!

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Yes, but it depends if the project is an engineering challenge, or if it has a service element to it. See the National Youth Leadership Council http://www.nylc.org/ for more info.

We do the "Take Action Project" where students take informed and effective action on a science-related issue of their choice, after extensive research, reflection and time to play with cause and effect webs around major problems in the world. They learn project management and get to it. We had speakers on 'how to get heard' and it links closely to engaging them as future voters, corporate people and politicians.

The idea that student feel they CAN make a difference seems fundamental to a functioning democracy - look at the poor levels of civic engagement amongst disenfranchised populations. And the look at direct and indirect effects of decisions done with this project will hopefully help them make longer term, wiser decisions as voters too.

Do all projects result in better democracy? If they are inquiry based and based on real-world problems, then I think it's a resounding 'yes'.

If you are interested in more on TAP, see www.takeactioncurriculum.org or www.takeactionscience.wordpress.com for the blog.

Thanks for the interesting question! Looking forward to other's thoughts on this. Sue

High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Some really excellent points...

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Hi Sue,
I think your comment raised some excellent points that are important in encouraging active citizenship (and perhaps in PBL, too?)

Firstly, I think that it is vital that there is opportunity for both reflection and action - if we lose either of those, I think we lose much of the effectiveness of such a curriculum.

Also, your mention of choice is vital too - I think there's a lot of potential in student-negotiated curricula, but the real challenge (as you so rightly point out in the slides that you have on the TAP website) is encouraging teachers to step outside their comfort zone.

You also mentioned civic engagement amongst disenfranchised populations - part of my interest in this topic is stimulated by what's seen as an overall civic deficit in Australia - in all groups of young people, so it's certainly pertinent. I also notice that you encourage organisations and community participation - I imagine that's incredibly powerful, too.

P.S. One day, you'll have to explain to me the whale paper mache project, and why it's so infamous.

Keith.

Instructional Designer | Canisius College

Replying...

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"The reason for my concern is simple: this increased accountability, removal of context, insistence on standardization and stricter, narrower curriculum to enforce higher literacy and numeracy standards (which don't often eventuate) is actually doing our students a disservice."

Keith, I agree with you on this one. But, I also agree partially with Hirsch (Cultural Literacy). Our students have to have a cultural literacy base in order to communicate effectively with others, to continue to learn at scaffolding levels, and to understand the very foundation this country is built on. This is what curriculum developers are trying to do...at least I hope so. What they fail to do is to involve some wiggle room for region specific topics- which I think is much needed.

"However, traditionally, schools served as places for students to learn the skills to enact democracy. They learned to debate and argue, question, challenge, protest etc etc."

Yes, yes, of course, but when do they have time? We are educating more students in this country then we ever have before, we are educating many different types of student nationalities and disabilities than we ever have before, and now we have more subjects than we ever have before. I would only risk extending the school day or year if there was an overhaul in the way students are being schooled, because in the compulsory situations they are in now, it won't make a difference (Mr. Duncan, are you out there listening?)

"Perhaps PBL might offer the answer? Can anyone give some examples of PBL or other work that supports the growth of active citizenship?"

Ahh, and this is where you cut to the chase Keith, because this is exactly how our students can be helped in a compulsory setting. You see, we can't change our school system. There's possibly way more at work than just teachers teaching in front of a class and students sitting in desks (Weapons of Mass Instruction- John Taylor Gatto).

No, I'm not proposing that. We CAN supplement the curriculum, though. We need projects that involve students, communities, and businesses. Communities need to take an active role in their schools, and students need to feel like they can make a difference within it. What you are referring to, "active citizenship", is something that has been discussed time and time again. It just needs the right formula and someone to drive it home.

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