Thursday, February 5, 2009

Against open-ended projects: arguments from psychology

The projects that dominate today's "project-based learning" pose problems for those I call "left-brainers:" linear, analytical thinkers who struggle with big-picture thinking. The more open-ended the projects, the more they have trouble even knowing where, and how, to begin.

Now research from psychology, as reported in a recent Economist article, suggests that open-endedness may pose problems for all students:

People act in a timely way when given concrete tasks but dawdle when they view them in abstract terms.
Researchers led by Sean McCrea, of the University of Konstanz in Germany, compared how speedily students completed such tasks as explaining how they might go about keeping a diary (concrete) vs. asking why someone might want to keep a diary (abstract). The results:
[A]lmost all the students who had been prompted to think in concrete terms completed their tasks by the deadline while up to 56% of students asked to think in abstract terms failed to respond at all.
Given this, today's teachers might consider how many of their students are actually completing such assignments as "invent a culture," "make up a game using everything you know about math," or, indeed, "write about why people keep diaries." Perhaps, often, it isn't the student, but a more future-thinking, grade-obsessed parent, who is doing most of the work.


ChemProf said...

I think a lot of the time with those abstract questions, students aren't sure what you're looking for. A lot of them, in that situation, will just hang back and see if someone else has a better idea. Which suggests that with that kind of project you find out less about what they know and more about how comfortable they are with the instructor, so that they are willing to try something even if they aren't sure what the instructor wants. Certainly, with science major college students, I find they hate that kind of assignment (but that is a left-brained crowd!)

TerriW said...

Well, as a parent of little ones still, this is a no-brainer.

"Go get ready for bed."
"Go pee on the potty"
"Okay, now wash your hands."
"Okay, now brush your teeth."
"Okay, now put on your jammies."
"Okay, now pick out your nighttime book."

Which version gets the job done quickly and which one causes the parent to get angry and drives the child to tears?