Project Work Stimulates Curiosity!


Last night I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Lilian Katz lecture at Mills College on awakening and focusing curiosity through the use of projects for kids.  She defined projects as extended, in-depth investigations into topics that are worth learning about. 

I was really inspired by the stories of how students as young as three and four designed their own research, and were the agents of their learning rather than passive recipients of knowledge.  The role of teachers is to facilitate learning, provide resources and coach the students.

One project Dr. Katz described asked students to study "ball-ness," or what are the characteristics of balls.  So each student was asked to bring a ball from home.  What showed up was a large collection of round objects - bowling balls, marbles, globes, baseballs, rubber balls.  The teacher asked them if the globe was a ball, and they said yes, because it was round.  So she held up a paper plate and pointed out that it too was round.

Then the students broke into groups and designed their own research into what makes a ball.  Some studied the weight of balls, some studied circumference, some studied the travel velocity of various round objects on an incline.  The students asked teachers for instruction on how to measure circumference, record their measurements, etc, and for help getting the needed materials.  Each group presented on their findings to the other groups, with the teachers helping them to think about what they wanted to tell the other groups.

This type of work is exciting to me because I believe that awakening intellectual curiosity is the real puzzle in education, and is a key factor in motivating students.  Dr. Katz thinks project work is a critical strategy because:

  • Recall and retention is better with 'slow learning' like project work, and there is genuine understanding as opposed to just knowledge.
  • Project work gives kids agency, rather than placing them in passive learner roles.
  • Project work emphasizes frequent sequences of contingent interaction, a key strategy in brain development for young children. 
  • Project work helps kids to develop social competence and can disrupt negative recursive cycles that hinder the social development of some children.

Recursive cycles are processes in which children who are already socially competent become more competent through positive interactions with other kids.  So children who are articulate are more accepted and have more friends and social interactions, which leads to them becoming even more articulate, and the cycle continues.

It also works the other way too, though, with children who are inarticulate being avoided by other children, leading to them becoming less articulate over time and gradually becoming more isolated.  The research shows that kids who fail to develop social competence by about the age of six are more likely to drop out of school.

I was excited about the potential for project work to disrupt negative recursive cycles because Oakland has an issue when it comes to drop-outs. 

The lecture was part of the Arlene Shmaeff Memorial Education Lecture Series.  I will be going to more of these going forward, because I was impressed.

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