The Problems with Project-Based Learning

Aspiring teachers have it drilled into them that project-based learning is the best kind of learning. After all, hands-on projects teach more than simply writing a report or answering questions on a boring old worksheet. However, the project-based learning approach has some serious drawbacks that have gone unspoken in academia.

Project-Based Learning Hurts Disabled Students

When I was in school, there was one word I hated more than any other: Project. I have cerebral palsy so my fine motor skills aren’t great. No amount of practice or positive thinking would ever solve that. Whereas many of the other kids got excited about the next big poster, diorama, or crazy multimedia extravaganza, it filled me with the worst kind of existential dread for a legion of reasons.

For starters, whenever the teacher said we had a big new artsy project idea she got from some education seminar, it meant that my IEP was about to be roundly violated. The whole bit about my bad motor skills was routinely ignored. Alternative assignments were rarely offered because. according to the project-happy teachers, it wouldn’t have been “fair” to the able-bodied students.

Let me take a minute to explain something to all the aspiring teachers in the audience: Federal law does not say, “Follow the IEP only when the rest of the class thinks it’s fair.” Federal law says, “Follow the IEP.” It’s not for the rest of the class to decide if disabled students have reasonable accommodations. The government decided that already. If the rest of your class complains that it’s unfair, that’s a good time to remind them that if the worst thing that ever happens to them is that a disabled student gets a slightly less complicated assignment, they are having a fantastic life.

But, since teachers adamantly refused to teach that much-needed lesson in perspective, I had to constantly deal with an endless barrage of make-work projects. It got to the point that the school had to hire a person to help me in class. Telling the teachers to cut it with the make-work nonsense would have been at least 5000 times cheaper.

Project-Based Learning Adds Unneeded Complication (And Displaces Content)

The worst part was that the projects were never on their own. They were complicated additions to standard things. A book report was never just a book report. There just had to be a big poster of some sort. There had to be a big presentation. I remember one time that we were supposed to make a background on a coffee can, make little Popsicle stick figures into characters from the book, and reenact a scene from a book in a presentation. In the time that took, the class could have read two more books.

I cheated on that assignment and stole one of my sister’s previous art projects. As far as I was concerned, if the teacher was cheating on the IEP, I could cheat too.

Science couldn’t just be science. You couldn’t just memorize the parts of a cell and their functions. You had to make a cake diagram. Which my mother ended up doing because my wheelchair couldn’t fit into the kitchen. The science teacher refused this explanation when I asked for an alternative assignment. After all, she believed in me. And we all know that positive thinking will make physical and architectural limitations magically vanish. It’s science!

Want to know why students know very little about American history and the rest of the world? History and social studies have become arts and crafts. Instead of learning about the history of Africa, kids make tribal masks. Instead of learning about American and world history, kids are told to make period costumes whether or not they can afford to make them (more on that soon). After all, you can’t ask kids to simply learn about dates, battles and historical figures even though that’s pretty much how everyone previously learned things. There have to be costume projects.

The Defenses of Project-Based Learning are Nonsense

Of course, there are many defenders of these practices. Some say that kids need art. I agree that kids need art. So bring back art, creative writing, and poetry classes. Bring back music. Bring in drama classes. That is the right way to expose kids to art. The wrong way is to turn every class into art class one week a month. It pushes out time for content. Every poster is another story not read, more words and facts not learned.

Others say that these projects prepare kids for college by teaching them to learn in different ways. As a college graduate, I can assure you that you’re probably not going to do much in the way of art in the classes that aren’t art classes. As someone who mentored new students in a work-study job, trying to force drawn-out art projects into every little thing in high school leaves them woefully unprepared for college where students are expected to sit down and write with nary a poster to speak of. They’re shocked that the professor doesn’t stop class for a week-long project. They’re in disbelief that an underpaid adjunct professor won’t stop class to appeal to the “learning styles” of 600+ students. Many legitimately can’t handle that shock. That’s one reason that so many young adults drop out in their first year. They come in being used to projects giving them breathing room and an extra boost to their grades. But then they see that college is like a bullet train. It goes from A to B and you either get on or get run over.

Others say that projects make things fun and interesting. I don’t know about teachers, but trying to trying to overcome fine-motor skill problems to do a project that’s worth an absurd portion of my grade was not fun. It was mentally painful and turned me off education. It is mentally painful for all motor-skills impaired students or even students that aren’t able to make glitzy posters to struggle with projects that could mean the difference between passing a class and losing access to hobbies, time with friends, and basically anything outside of school and church (if kids go to it). And let’s be real, no class ditcher has ever been wooed into going to class by turning simple assignments into projects.

Project-Based Learning Harms the Poor

But let’s ignore the other failures of project-based learning. Let’s ignore the fact that it’s generally terrible for disabled students. Let’s ignore the fact that it displaces content. Let’s ignore the fact it doesn’t prepare kids for college. Let’s ignore that it isn’t really fun or interesting. There is one major reason school art projects get an F: Poverty.

Do you know what’s cheap? Essays and other things that require writing. Schools are giving out laptops. School libraries have printers. The cost of writing assignments is minimal compared to posters, costumes, and other creative projects. Project-based learning requires parents to have money for constant trips to Hobby Lobby for expensive (compared to pencil and paper) projects. When teachers assign expensive projects that can determine if poor kids pass or fail, they violently yank food out of the mouths of impoverished students.

There’s also the parent-time factor. No matter how many time a teacher asks parents not to help kids with whatever needlessly complex project they dreamed up, the fact is that parents are going to help. In some cases, they have to help because the project is that needlessly complicated. Rich parents with stable jobs have the luxury of helping out with these things. Poor parents who are working more than one job and are often on-call, do not.

Not only does project-based learning hurt the poor kids, but it also hurts the cause of teachers. I fully support teachers’ unions and Red for Education. However, when a teacher goes on TV and talks about how they’re concerned about the kids who have food-insecurity problems only to assign some expensive project, everyone notices the hypocrisy. You can’t cry about food-insecurity of your students and then demand artsy poster projects constantly. Want to help kids secure some food? Bench the art project. I guarantee that if a teacher got in front of the camera and said they were putting make-work projects to bed in solidarity with working parents, the more skeptical poor people would start believing that the unions are fighting for students.

Teachers are told that project-based learning is the epitome of best practices. However, it has so many real-world drawbacks that it’s time to put it out of the misery of kids and cash-strapped parents. Kids need art but for a lot of kids, project-based learning is cruelty masquerading as creativity. Do the art in art class.

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