I was writing an email to Dr. Brian Lawler, my Mathematics Methods instructor from Cal State University San Marcos when, in an unexpected moment of clarity, my thoughts and frustrations with project-based learning became incredibly clear. To be transparent, I actually work IN a project-based school. To be even more transparent, I'm not always sure I believe in it…

"I understand that an exemplar project might not be best utilized by being "replicated" because of its uniqueness to the learning community within which it was situated. However, I haven't seen anybody do a project that achieves depth in mathematical thinking. I want to see one so that I know what it COULD look like…not what it SHOULD look like in my class. My initial thoughts are that an emphasis on applied mathematics has skewed project-based learning in a direction that veers away from mathematical thought and more towards an application of formulas. I also think that an emphasis on PRODUCTS (or flashy, sexy art) has overshadowed less exciting products that COULD demonstrate thought transformation. Students have come to expect art and "relevance" (which, to them, often means how it can be used to solve a "real world" problem). Anyways….it needs work. I love working here for the freedom we have but I have actually become an opponent of PBL in the ways I have seen it done.

I have been thinking a lot about unit structure since we talked recently. I love the Interactive Mathematics Program model of perplex --> attempt --> identify what we need --> play out mathematical trajectory --> revisit initial problem. By starting and ending a unit with THE SAME PROBLEM, you can easily see where students "began" and where they "ended" which (aside from grading) helps us give meaningful FEEDBACK about their understandings/misunderstandings and development."

Without a doubt, the journey is maddeningly interesting...


02/10/2012 7:49am

Had I had a math teacher like you when I was in school, my math abilities would be so much greater. I am also certain that I would not be afraid of math, the way I am today. I had a terrible math teacher in the 8th grade who not only failed me in algebra but never attempted to help me understand math. It was all downhill from there.

02/10/2012 1:08pm

<blockquote>the journey is maddeningly interesting</blockquote>
Yes - I think you speak directly to my passion for teaching mathematics.
And you know, I think we can engage all of our students to have this same joyful experience, quite often, as the are "doing mathematics." It is most easily accomplished when they are presented rich tasks, and they are doing it for themselves--not for a grade,...
Great to read. I love the a-ha moments such as the one you shared here with us last night.
Be good!

Anne Schwartz
02/13/2012 10:58am

Having now taught in a problem based curriculum, I can tell you I love it somedays and despise it others. As opposed to a project based I feel like the students get that depth but somedays they get so frustrated and somedays I do.

Bah, teaching is hard. I say that in all sincerity. I am at an amazing place and I still don't agree with everything.

Btw, my brother teaches at your middle school now. I'm surprised you haven't seen him!

02/13/2012 12:45pm

Interesting….I find myself a HUGE proponent of problem-based learning. It seems to situate the mathematics nicely in an appropriate context and, in many ways, provides relevance for the students by necessitating the content.

My interest is in the difference between project-based and problem-based. Honestly, I'm not sure there SHOULD be one. Aren't most math "projects" just answering really good mathematical "problems?" In trying to force a difference, it seems many people have opted for PRODUCTS as the differentiating factor…which has had really negative unintended consequences.

07/23/2012 11:47am

Hello mate, great blog.

06/11/2013 6:55pm

I'm working with three other colleagues on interdisciplinary curriculum focused on sustainability. It makes me wish I was teaching straight up statistics because the tie-ins would be so obvious and easy. But, I'm teaching geometry in this context and it is driving me a bit crazy seeing how I can stay true to the beauty and structure inherent in the mathematics without letting math simply "service" the other disciplines. When you find that exemplary project that achieves the mathematical depth you are talking about, please send it my way too!


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