George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Editor’s Note: Let’s Encourage Students to Think — and Do — for Themselves

Sometimes the most learning is done when adults stay quiet.

March 23, 2005

Teachers spend many hours each day busily cramming test-specific facts and figures into the heads of their students, but ultimately it's only when the kids depart the classroom at the end of the day or year that we see whether the seeds of knowledge sprout in any meaningful way. Marvelous things can happen when they do.

I had a rare opportunity to see this on a recent school trip with my daughter, Samantha. Her fourth-grade class was part of an overnight experiential-education program aboard the Balclutha, a 118-year-old tall-masted ship snugly docked at San Francisco's Maritime Museum. Here's the setup: The year is 1906, and the "lads" (the students) are freshly hired greenhorns. During a brief eighteen-hour journey into the past, they must acquire enough nautical skill to set sail on the evening tide. The ship's officers, who all behave with period snap and vinegar, give orders and instructions to the lads, who are expected to carry them out crisply.

The lads must listen -- if they don't, they get an earful from the crew -- and solve problems like throwing a line, rigging a bosun's chair, or cooking for the crew on a wood-burning stove. My fellow adult chaperones and I had only one task: make sure the lads didn't land in the bay. Other than a single-word warning ("Avast!"), we were not allowed to communicate with them.

The kids started out stumped. After a complicated set of nautical instructions from the first mate, for instance, they'd reflexively and pleadingly look to us, their parents and teacher, with eyes as big as saucers. We stared back blankly. Slowly, but surely, however, their synapses fired, and they began to connect the dots. Confusion evolved into problem solving, which flowered into discovery.

It's rewarding (and a little startling) to realize that kids who, at home, can't find the Cheerios in the morning can puzzle a problem through and figure out how to execute a complicated set of rope maneuvers designed to hoist an ensign or lower a dinghy.

The program, sponsored by the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association, encourages students to develop self-confidence and self-reliance, which in turn fosters a sense of responsibility for themselves, their shipmates, and their shipboard community.This is what education should do: Teach students how to think rather than what to think. Encourage them to make connections, rather than load their brains with the thoughts of others. As teachers, mentors, and parents, we have a difficult and unnatural task: to make ourselves progressively, but inevitably, unnecessary.

Editor in Chief
James Daly

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