Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Project or Recipe

Chris Lehmann is the principal of the Science Leadership Academy, a partnership school in Philadelphia, and a frequent speaker on educational issues. He’s a great guy, smart, friendly and truly dedicated to his students and their school. One of  the things he has said that really resonates with me is this quote about projects.

If you give a project and you got back thirty of the same thing, then it wasn't a project it was a recipe.”

This really has me thinking. I know some people who love the idea of recipes. There are a bunch of recipes for teaching Small Basic that people I know have been using with some good success for a while for example. I think in the long term it may be how you use the recipes but in the long run I  think one really wants projects to all be different.

My wife and I have been trying a lot of recipes for meals lately. We’ve got some good cookbooks and we’re picking out recipes that help us with our diet goals. We almost never cook things exactly the way the recipe calls for though. Sometimes we leave things out because I am allergic to them or just plain will not eat them. Sometimes we increase quantities – rule of thumb always double what they call for in garlic – to suit our particular tastes. The result is something different from the cookbook but more suited to our individual tastes and desires.

Projects can be like that as well. Oh for sure sometimes we have to have some firm constraints because of the goals of  the project. If we didn’t require loops in some projects we’d get code that worked, in a manner of speaking, but that was a lot of cut and paste of single statements for example. I think what is needed is that recipes can be a base, a place to start, but for a real project there has to be some open ended room for exploration, creativity, and even independent learning.

Perhaps a recipe is a good starter to build a platform for more individualized work. For more advanced students I think you want less recipe and more open-endedness.  Thirty identical projects may be easy to grade but they are boring for students, boring for the grader, and limiting to everyone. Education should be about expanding options not limiting them. It should be able give students the tools and letting them use the tools in creative ways to solve interesting problems.

Recipes are not bad but they are not enough. Are you leaving enough openness in yoru projects so that you get a lot of unique solutions or is everyone just robotically following a limited recipe?


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that I totally agree. At least in the computer science context anyway. I would suggest that there are levels of learning. While acquiring the basic concepts, I think that a recipe with predictable results is crucial. There are some concepts that are difficult to grasp. Once understood, then perhaps a more sophisticated project where students are allowed to branch off into different areas of interest is appropriate. As I type this, I'm thinking of how difficult it was for me to understand linked lists in the beginning. I needed a project with a high level of specific instruction to understand in the beginning. Throw me to the wolves at the outset? I don't think I would have been successful.

Alfred Thompson said...

I see a need for both projects and what I think of as exercises. An exercise will be more recipe like in nature. It would be smaller in scale and students would be able to spend time studying it in close detail. The next step would be to incorporate the concept from the exercise in a larger project which would be more open ended to make it a lot more personal for the student.

Laura Blankenship said...

I tend to cover specific concepts in labs. Projects are more for combining multiple concepts.