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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Modest Curriculum Proposal: Project Learning vs. the Textbook

Let’s teach basketball with textbooks.
Milton Chen
Senior Fellow
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Credit: Veer

The Golden State Warriors, who play in nearby Oakland, California, made it to the NBA playoffs for the first time in thirteen years, and the San Francisco Bay Area went basketball crazy. If this nation could get half as exercised about its public schools as does about its sports, our schools would quickly become performance powerhouses.

The playoffs leading up to the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the NBA Finals all occupy a large portion of our nation's mindshare for months. What would happen if we also devoted major media time to the run-up for the National Teacher of the Year award or the Scripps National Spelling Bee or the Intel Science Talent Search? Education needs to be much higher on the national agenda and much more visible in our media; instead, our best teachers and students are nearly invisible on the country's radar screen.

For now, let's at least consider the lessons of basketball for learning. That's right -- think about how basketball is taught and learned and how we might apply those processes to our schools. An eminent science educator, Roger Nichols, who served as director of the Boston Museum of Science in the 1980s, taught me that lesson more than twenty years ago. Nichols's career was a testament to his commitment to bringing the excitement of science to children: He felt so strongly about it that he gave up his professorship at the Harvard Medical School to lead the Museum of Science during the last chapter of his career.

As a young assistant professor of education at Harvard, I took my graduate students to visit the Museum of Science and meet with Nichols, who made time in his busy schedule to sit down with us.

In discussing the need for hands-on science learning, Nichols asked us to imagine parents at the dinner table asking their young son or daughter that age-old question "What did you learn in school today?" The child shrugs, as children often do, and says, "We learned to play basketball." The parents then ask, "How did you do that?" The child answers, "Well, we sat in the gym and the teacher passed out these books, and we turned to chapter one, about passing the basketball, and we learned there are three types of passes: the bounce pass, the chest pass, and the one-handed pass."

"OK," parents would say, wanting to know more, "what happened next?" The child continues, "We read the next chapter about dribbling. And another chapter on shooting. We learned there’s the set shot, the bank shot, and the jump shot." After a few minutes of this recitation, the parents, increasingly exasperated, challenge their child: "But did the teacher ever give you a basketball and let you go on the court and play?" "No,” the child says with a sigh. "We just read the book until the bell rang."

Nichols said that no parent in America would stand for this, for sports to be taught to their children only through reading and through memorizing basketball terminology. Sports require observing oneself performing and watching others perform. Coaches and athletes routinely make use of videotape analysis of games to improve performance. Yet millions of parents settle for science, mathematics, history, and many other subjects taught through rote memorization of vocabulary from textbooks, and students never get a chance to actively perform real science or conduct authentic historical study.

Science and mathematics education should involve students getting out of the classroom and collecting data in fields and streams, at traffic intersections, and in their larger communities. Having students investigate seemingly simple but very meaningful questions such as "Where does the water in your house come from? Where does it go? Can you measure its quality?" would transform science and math education. The learning of history should immerse students in original documents, photographs, and music, as the Library of Congress's American Memory project does so well.

So, I propose a new national campaign to teach basketball with textbooks. If the ensuing parental marches on school board meetings, the outrage, and the debates about what a crazy idea this is also lead to thoughtful consideration about active hands-on, minds-on learning in academic subjects, this brief campaign will have been very worthwhile.

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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a hands-on science teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for an awesome basketball analogy taught through textbooks! I enjoyed the laugh. If teachers eliminated textbooks in all subjects and taught using hands-on projects, students would be practicing daily life skills for planning, problem solving, and collaborating, and people would be reading about how schools were exceeding state and national standards. Keep up the dialogue, Edutopia!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Tom Rossing, a physics professor at Northern Illinois University, published a short satirical piece along these lines many years ago. It described how a fictional college changed how it taught football and science: football was taught with three hours of lecture each week and lab, while science students got special dorms, tutors, etc. I believe it was in the American Journal of Physics, and was quite well done.

john Roseman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Loved the basketball farce. However, our present national leadership would probably not get the point because all No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is concerned with is the superficial remembering of the concepts, i.e. bounce pass, dribbling. It would seem the hugely powerful testing organization has convinced U.S. politicians that remembering a term is education. Real learning takes time and resources. Testing of real learning is often difficult to do on a fill-in-the-bubble paper test, and would put Testing Corporations out of business.

The Modified Librarian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a great piece. I sent this to my mother, who has been teaching English and History with a problem-based learning approach for close to thirty years. I've always wondered why physical education and science teachers haven't gotten together to develop an interdisciplinary unit combining science principles (particularly physics) with sports. Not only would the students be active, they would be active participants using the scientific principles they are studying. My students are thrilled when I take them on "explorations" outside of the library. They usually have a lot of fun and I now have several students who come to the library on a regular basis and read, when before the thought of picking up a book made them turn green. If teachers can find ways to tie in as many aspects of students' lives with their learning process, I think we'll find the passion for learning that all teachers want their students to have.

Janice's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! What an idea! I have seen the importance of sports over academics ever since the principal at a school told me that he backed the coach - that my Spanish students who were scheduled to go to an academic bowl would not be able to go because they would miss basketball practice - Quote: "Janice, you know that sports are more important than academics here."
American schools are trying to compete with schools in other countries, but it's like comparing apples and oranges. American schools give much of their time, energy, and especially money to sports programs. Schools in other countries concentrate on academics. No sports are offered by the schools. Students who participate in sports do so outside of school time. So how can we even hope to compete with countries that make academics number one?
My point: I think sports are good, but they are sometimes emphasized at the expense of academics. And, as you demonstrate, academics need to be presented in a more lively, hands-on way. Good for you!

Parent in Madison WI's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In Madison WI, the Madison Schools do provide hands on experience. Today, one of the high school geometry classes is downtown learning how to measure building. And last week the ALS class (sign language) went to Denny's for lunch. They also saw a play at a school for deaf. One class has them applying and interviewing for jobs. In middle school, math class, they visit malls to learn how to exchange money, and in eighth grade the students get a map and bus ticket to take a bus to downtown, where they have a scaventure hunt for certain buildings and than they return on the bus. (Chaperones with each groups) In elementary, they plant gardens, portrait their favorite historical person and in one homework assignment the students have to find measuring tools in their own homes. As great as our schools are there is a big gap in the funding process and some of these hands on techniques are becoming less and less. I agree with the author's message about the nation's backward priorities when it comes to supporting education in our public schools versus supporting our nation's sports. But we do live in a country where each person is guaranteed freedom of choice.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The author of this article missed the basket and failed to mention all of the drills and practice needed to succeed at this sport. He also failed to mention that players need to learn and understand skills and strategies, which can also be taught and learned through books. Good basketball players may know how to play the game; great ones know the game inside and out. Simply putting a child on a basketball court and handing him/her the ball isn't enough. What about the child who wants to learn about the game, but is unable to play? Why knock textbooks? Why create a false impression that students are only being taught through textbooks? Anyone who really knows NCLB, knows students are getting plenty of hands-on experiences.

goofymom's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I start teaching English I next year to an at risk population at our school. What suggestions would your mother have to integrate reading and writing?

Dr. Melinda Bossenmeyer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for acknowledging the "lessons from the gym" analogy. Well said and so true. Active learning is a critical instructional strategy.

You make my educational "all star team."

Love your e newsletter and magazine!


Bonnie Green's picture

I enjoyed your analogy, I have been screaming this for years, all schools and grades should go to a hands-on approach. I have taught k for over 15 years and see how these 5 year olds learn, and they are not any different than other students. You just have to change your way of presenting the curr. All students benefit from this approach and it makes learning more meaningful. When will the national level ever get it and advocate a change in this way. Children are not wired the same way they were say even 25 years ago. They learn by having their hands on the subject. My son is in such need of a good high school that teaches this way, my husband and I are even willing to move anywhere in the country to get him this kind of education. I want his education to mean something to him, I hate that he dislikes school because to him it is boring. Wake up American Education and change with the times!

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