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The Both/And of Content and Skills in Project-Based Learning


A few weeks ago there were two articles in the New York Times that provided an interesting juxtaposition, although I’m not sure that was intentional. Claire Cain Miller’s article, “How the Modern Workplace Has Become Like Preschool,” underscores the pragmatic value of teaching children how to be in relationship with one another, to self-regulate, collaborate, and develop empathy for others. The other, “Schools for Wisdom,” questions whether or not we’ve thrown the content-baby out with the proverbial bath water in our effort to teach children in ways that will reinforce what the author, David Brooks, refers to as, “life skills.”


IMG_9943I’d note that Brooks defines life skills differently from how we define Life Skills at Wildwood’s elementary campus, which I think of as how we ARE, rather than what we LEARN. Brooks’ “life skills” are seen as some sort of a replacement for content. That’s not how we view them, of course. Wildwood’s Life Skills complement curricular content, which is how it should be.


There’s good stuff in both articles and they’re worth a read. That said, I finished the “Schools for Wisdom” article, especially, thinking that I was grateful to have our multicultural language handy. Brooks approaches the whole topic from an either/or perspective, rather than the both/and perspective with which my colleagues and I approach the topic.


But as much as I wish Brooks hadn’t been so concrete in his thinking about projects and skill development versus content, as though it has to be a choice, it’s Nancy who most concerns me. I was intrigued to see what others thought of the article, so I read some of the comments. Nancy, a teacher in my home state of Pennsylvania, wrote:


My gifted high school students HATE project-based group learning. They complain about it constantly. There is a teacher here at our school who does nothing but these gimmicky cooperative group projects that involve the students  “discovering” the information themselves (using technology, of course), and my kids are so frustrated by it because they don’t have enough background knowledge to even know how to begin or what to search for online. I’m with Brooks on this – you need a basic framework of information before you can be left to your own devices to direct your own learning. It’s also incredibly inefficient. My students loathe the fact that they’ll spend weeks on something that the teacher could have told them in a single period. Just sayin’.


Has Nancy read any research in the last 20 years? Been to a professional conference?

Wildwood students presenting their group research.

Wildwood students presenting their group research.

Of course Nancy’s kids complain about group learning. Collaborating with others to find information, listen to and incorporate their perspectives, and build something together is much more difficult than controllable variables like how much time you dedicate to preparing for a test or rewriting an essay or a lab. It’s hard work to be in relationship with other people. Isn’t that what most of our work and personal lives entail? It’s easier to work solo and study for a test, “competing” against the person in the desk next to you somewhat anonymously. But that’s not real.


As inefficient as projects can feel, there’s plenty of science—and it’s disappointing that Brooks doesn’t at least acknowledge this—that points to the fact that students retain information far better from working with it in the way that projects promote—not just group, but individual projects, as well—than in the more “efficient” model of drill and kill that Nancy relies on.


I serve on the board of an amazing school for students who, like Nancy’s, have been identified as gifted. Post for 11_6_2015Like Wildwood School, however, Nueva School proudly wears the mantle of Progressive and recognizes that content is best mastered not just through receiving summative tests (Demonstrations of Knowledge, or “Demos” at Wildwood), essays, lab reports, and the other traditional forms of assessment, but that the research is correct: as learners, we retain knowledge best for the long-term when we work with it, when we do something with it.


The kind of myopic and dismissive view that Nancy brings to this discussion frustrates and saddens me, and it makes me wish I could talk to some of Nancy’s kids ten years on. She may be a very nice person and a perfectly fine teacher, but I’d place my best hopes on the students who had the gimmicky guy down the hall. His kids are going to remember what they learned in that classroom ten and twenty years from now.


That is, of course, assuming that gimmicky guy hasn’t replaced content-related curricula with skills. That’d be a mistake. I agree.


Brooks, meanwhile, has also somehow drawn the conclusion that our colleagues at San Diego County’s celebrated High Tech High have replaced curricular content with the kinds of process-oriented skills that Claire Cain Miller celebrates. I wonder if Brooks read HTH’s website, which describes their strategic commitment to interdisciplinary content as:


All HTH students pursue a rigorous curriculum that provides the foundation for entry and success at the University of California and elsewhere, as well as success in the world of work. Schools articulate common expectations for learning that value 21st century skills, the integration of hands and minds, and the merging of academic disciplines.


As we know at Wildwood School, the University of California’s required courses are stringent. Meet them, and you’re in good shape.


Outlining his concern that “intellectual virtues” might be at risk in environments that incorporate projects, Brooks describes the very best of Project-Based Learning by describing what he sees as the stages of producing wise people: essentially, understand content; make connections; think differently; do something with it. Project-Based Learning is based, in part, on the premise that students must understand content to work with it and create, either individually or collaboratively, which—as oft-criticized and even dismissed as it sometimes is—is an incredibly important facility to help students develop.


It’s like so much else: we have to find the right balance, to incorporate the both/and and not limit ourselves—or our students—to either/or.  I agree with the first part of this Brooks’ quote, “But somehow relational skills have to be taught alongside factual literacy. The stairway from information to knowledge to wisdom has not changed.” Relational skills do have to be taught alongside factual literacy. That’s one of the key points in Ms. Miller’s article.


I disagree with the second part of that last Brooks’ passage, though. Although his “stairway” might still be there, it has definitely changed. And I’m not just talking about technology and how we access content and information. I’m talking about the volume of information and the fact that what we think of as “content” is dynamic. That’s the intersection we all need to be going for, and it’s the focus for us at Wildwood. Of course students need to master content, but where are the lines and what do we consider fixed? Do all students need to temporarily commit to memory the battles, dates, and generals of a particular war, as many of us did?


Sticking with that example, our content needs to focus not just on when a particular conflict happened, but why it happened. Some of those basic date-place-player facts need to be internalized, but memorizing much of the breadth of that next layer down is important mostly to those who will become historians—and they’ll memorize it as they work with it.


The content and skills that students master doing research, taking Demos, preparing for presentations, etc. at Wildwood are reinforced through individual, paired, and group projects.  It’s not too far of a leap to see how beautifully an engaging, student-centered project could help a learner put it all together and remember it.


That’s where I think that Brooks misses the mark and misleads in having been too general and far too concrete.  It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. Projects—which engage, push, empower, and frustrate students—reinforce the content they’ve learned in sometimes more traditional methods. But they also develop those “softer” skills that Miller outlines as being important in the workplace—and, I’d argue, in friend circles, in marriages, and in families.


~Landis Green

Head of School

 Landis Green, Head of School



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