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Preventing the Punkin Chunkin from Going Potemkin Village

Posted by on Nov 30, 2010 in General | One Comment

So maybe it is the Marine in me, but my mind went straight to a Punkin War.  Teams set up positions around  a Pumpkin Patch, supported by Punkin Artillery, with each team trying to drag as many pumpkins as possible back to their base, all the while avoiding getting jacked up by incoming jack-o-lanterns.  I know, not likely we could get an event premised on hitting students with twenty-pound gords coming in from a mile, but wow would there be some authentic assessment going on.

Ok, on a more serious and less disturbing note.  As a former science teacher I have seen lots of really cool ideas (egg drop contests, spaghetti houses holding up a particular weight) end up having the learning sucked right out of them.  Why?  Lots of reasons but the biggest have to do with time, pedagogy and pride.
Too often the projects are crammed into the curriculum, meaning that the event goes on no matter what students have learned.   Not having nearly enough time to make mistakes and learn from them means many students end up at the final event essentially winging it.  As the final event is set up to be a spectacle, it often goes off without a hitch- pumpkins fly and eggs drop- as long as nobody asks any hard questions.   Ironically, students could have gone through the whole unit without learning much of anything except how to do sloppy half-assed work.   Then someone takes pictures of the whole event that get published in some piece of school propaganda and passed off as learning- true Potempkin Village Pedagogy.  Back to test prep.

Truth is the learning starts when the wheels fall off the project.  Students wing it, which often means the pumpkin goes nowhere, the egg breaks, and the spaghetti house crumbles.  Now we have a problem, which means now something might be learned.   So the learning starts right there, and as teachers we have to be ready for it, waiting for the moments, and then working in the confusion.  This kind of learning cannot be easily assigned to fifteen minute blocks, as it unfolds in real time and in real situations.

Imagine a catapult sending a pumpkin straight up in the air one thousand feet.  We watch it lose velocity until gravity grips it and for just a moment it sits suspended in the air, just long enough for us to realize that the incoming pumpkin could kill us.  But learning is “incoming” too, and if we do not set up the event to avoid it can result in students encountering real problems-and problematic pumpkins quickly reaching terminal velocity- that only learning can surmount.   In other words, for those who survive the event the learning starts then and there.  Math, physics, you name it.  Its as real as it gets… so long as one’s pride does not get in the way.

Pride can get in the way of learning, as events like the Punkin Chunkin reflect both on the teachers and students.  Nobody wants to look bad, so sometimes teachers can get a bit too involved in the project, which can end up sucking the learning out of it for kids .   So teachers have to be ready for kids to flail at this for a while, and for teachers to support their learning but not do the work.  Too many kids have learned how to not learn in school, one way being playing possum until teachers or other students do their work.  This goes right back to time, as time running out often means learning runs out too.
How to prevent this?  Be ready for failure.  Invite it. Capitalize on it.  Get kids to learn how to learn, which can only happen when they realize they do not know something.  This realization has to be concrete, and how much more concrete than your Punkin not Chunkin be?