Michigan Portfolios


Three Key Ideas:  Engagement, Project-Based Learning, and Feedback

As I write this Exxon-Mobil is running a series of television advertisements purporting to be on behalf of American education.  One of these ads asserts that because 45 states have subscribed to the Common Core Standards students in our country will now have better success in higher education and in careers.  Of course, this is what the Introduction to the Common Core also asserts—commitment to the Core will lead, they say, to “college and career readiness.”

Many of us in education believe no such thing.  I live about 35 miles from Detroit, Michigan.  When I drove in recently to consult with some Detroit High School teachers, the neighborhood surrounding the school consisted mostly of homes that had been nice, and probably safe, in the 40’s and 50’s.  Now about twenty five per cent of the homes are occupied.  Seventy five per cent are empty and in various states of desperate decline–windows out, doors broken open, roofs dilapidated, rubbish in the yard, grass overgrown or consisting of patches in the dirt.  Our cars were monitored in the school parking lot by a guard who stays inside the building and looks out a window.

In the teaching of writing, which is the primary concern of this Michigan Portfolios website, the Common Core especially proposes an intense focus on three genres of writing:  Narrative, Informational/Research, and Argument/Persuasion.  The “good thing,” as I say to groups of teachers I am working with, is that we can—even K-12—focus much of our teaching work in writing on these three genres.  They are crucial types of writing, widely used in our society.

What the Common Core does not explain, or help with in any way, is the issue of how we are going to help teachers further prepare to teach these genres well, and how we are going to achieve classrooms with low enough numbers of students, in safe enough neighborhoods, to make teaching and learning effective.

To be blunt, the Common Core does not explain or include help with any core issues of teaching and learning.  It is actually just a list of prescribed and expected student achievement, which, even in writing, will be measured by the tests.

Serious educational research over the last twenty or thirty years does tell us much about what the core issues in teaching and learning actually are.  I want to discuss three key ideas that should guide us.

ENGAGEMENT:  You can teach the engaged student almost anything.  It is difficult to make learning progress when a student is un-engaged.  Within best teaching practice, utilizing workshop methods and room for student choice (within parameters), student engagement can be consistently maintained.  To some, engagement might seem like a vague criterion, but Boykin and Noguera clarify three types:  behavioral, cognitive, and affective.  They also cite studies that consistently show “engagement had a far greater impact on . . .gains than did instructional time.”

Creating the Opportunity to Learn, Boykin and Noguera

PROJECT-BASED LEARNING:  Use of whole, authentic, life-like projects helps bring about student engagement, offers problem-solving challenges over time that teach both critical thinking and persistence, and yields meaningful learning outcomes that can be applied to real life situations in the future.  Perkins and his colleagues in Project Zero at Harvard make a strong commitment to project-based learning because it results in performance understandings and “Connections . . . between students’ lives and the subject matter.”

“Teaching for Understanding,” David Perkins

– Powerful Learning, Linda Darling-Hammond

FEEDBACK:  John Hattie has recently offered a thorough summary of key findings about feedback.  The fundamental discovery is that timely feedback that keeps its eye on the larger goal while providing the student a sense of what is “correct” so far and what the “next step” could/should be can dramatically improve student progress.  Next to quality lessons that provide guidance for students with authentic workshop tasks, feedback may be the single most important factor in increasing student learning.

Not surprisingly, the least useful feedback is “disconfirmation” (pointing out what’s wrong) with little corrective information.  This is the type of feedback standardized tests provide.

“The Power of Feedback,” John Hattie

Results of Working Effectively with the Three Core Ideas

MEETING STUDENT NEEDS:  Through these methods, aligned with an active concern for the well being of the student overall, the educational circumstance will more naturally incorporate the ability to meet students’ basic human needs and move them forward with learning.

Hierarchy of Human Needs:

  • Food, Water, Sleep
  • Safety
  • Belonging, Love, Affection
  • Esteem—worth and recognition
  • Self Actualization

Toward a Psychology of Being, Abraham Maslow

One out of three Black and Latino children experience food insecurity (Children’s Defense Fund), and twenty five per cent of all urban U. S. children deal with hunger.  Maslow’s ultimate goal of self-actualization takes us back to engagement and project-based learning, focuses that allow for a marriage of academic purpose and student interest.

The Common Core is expressed in such cold-blooded language that it almost makes us forget we live in desperate times.  In The Courage to Create Rollo May explains, “Courage is not the absence of despair; it is, rather, the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair.”


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