Academic journal article English Journal

Enacting Problem-Posing Education through Project-Based Learning

Academic journal article English Journal

Enacting Problem-Posing Education through Project-Based Learning

Article excerpt

In the last 20 years, federal accountability policies have contributed to a high-stakes testing environment encouraging teacher-centered classrooms and the teaching of basic skills in isolation, which has resulted in narrowed curricula (Au; Mintrop and Sunderman; Ravitch). Although these policies were intended to improve instruction, teachers are less likely to create innovative and culturally relevant curricula when textbooks and standardized curricula are required by the state or school district (Apple; Stairs, Donnell, and Dunn). This trend toward standardization with its focus on basic skills conflicts with the idea of problem-posing education grounded in authentic inquiry. Although it is important for students to meet standards and pass high-stakes exams, as educators, we must ensure that we are cultivating critical-thinking skills, both for our students and for ourselves. Project-based learning, a specific pedagogy consistent with Paulo Freire's problem-posing theory of education, is one way to create student-centered learning experiences that allow students to construct knowledge and learn critical-thinking skills.

A Glimpse of Project-Based Learning

Before explaining the theory behind project-based learning, I want to offer a glimpse of what this pedagogy looks like by presenting a scene from my middle school teaching experience. In one project, students were asked to identify an issue in the community and then develop a solution that drew on current research and historical ways of responding to it. During community mapping a week before the conversation that follows, my students walked through neighborhoods adjacent to the school and photographed positive and negative artifacts. Students were not told what was "positive" or "negative," but were instead asked to make their own choices and provide a written rationale. We then examined these artifacts as a class, celebrating what was positive and identifying a problem we wanted to solve.

To pick one problem on which to focus, students worked in small groups to develop a list of problems. We then posted these lists on the walls, and I gave each student three stickers so they could "vote" for their top three issues. By the end of this activity, problems related to violence, particularly gang violence, had a chain of colored stickers next to them, clearly identifying this topic as a critical one for our student population. Based on their collected artifacts, our class readings on ancient civilizations, and their own Internet research, one group had decided we needed to implement an honor code in Oakland similar to Bushido used by samurai warriors in ancient Japan. I sat down to discuss with Esmeralda, Devon, George, Ava, and Travon how they would make this argument in their writing. Our conversation went something like this:

"Esmeralda, why does Oakland need Bushido?" I asked, leaning forward in one of the student desks we had arranged in a circle.

"Well, we got so much gang activity here. There's too much violence," she stated matter-of-factly.

"Yeah," chimed in George, "something needs to change."

"Will this code of conduct change anything? What did you write down as your reasons for this proposal?" I asked.

Devon opened his notebook to where he and his group members had listed support for their proposal and read, "Our first reason is that if local gangs followed Bushido, there would be less killing." He then added, "We found some numbers on a website about murders in Oakland that we were going to use."

"Ahh . . . You've piqued my interest, but I want to know more," I said. "Why would there be less killing?"

Ava replied, "Because one of the ideas of Bushido is being calm, and, I don't know, maybe that would help?"

"Yeah, if people could pause and think through their actions, then maybe, you know, they wouldn't just shoot someone for messing with them," Travon added.

"We haven't figured out, like, exactly how this would work. …

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