Ron Berger

As a society we seem very willing to adopt trends or ideas that seem to offer a quick solution to the ongoing problems we face. Education, with its heavy idealist bent, is no different but in the search for a ‘quick fix’ we often neglect to understand what is required to create a lasting and effective change. One educational approach, which is not really new but is in danger of being viewed as a ‘quick fix’ is Project Based Learning. The name causes quite a reaction; the word ‘project’ conjures up memories and associations of poor learning, last minute panic work and the result sitting somewhere in the corner/box/shed after a brief appearance at a ‘public’ event to demonstrate ‘good’ learning. To remedy this problem, I would urge you to read Ron Berger’s ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ where he proposes something more valuable and deeper than the poorly reasoned project attempts mentioned above. He suggests the following as essential ingredients of a successful project:

1) Projects should inspire and challenge students;
2) Projects should cover a range of learning;
3) It must solve a particular problem (genuine research);
4) It should involve models of what the work should look like
5) Multiple drafts are encouraged;
6) Critique as part of the drafting process is necessary (see Darren Mead’s blog and Neal Watkin’s video);
7) The work is publicly displayed so there is a substantive real world outcome for the learning process.

Of course, this process cannot be fully effective if it is not embedded within a wider culture of learning and Berger has demonstrated that this is possible in the schools he has worked in (such as High Tech High in San Diego) where the project is not an addition to the curriculum, it is the main thing. One of the things that struck me after reading Steve Jobs’ biography is how Berger’s process seems to be imbued in the culture of one of the world’s innovative companies (although the critique part could be brutal in Jobs’ case). The work is always challenging, involves multidisciplinary efforts to resolve particular problems, goes through numerous revisions (the description about the invention of the iPad is particularly telling in the book) and has a public audience. I’m pretty sure that if Jony Ive was asked about whether his work gives him meaning, the response would be positive.

Doing something worthwhile (designing products to be used by millions or doing a piece of work on an incredible historical story) requires the person working on the project to be inspired and challenged by what they do. Berger, and the work of his students, point to something fascinating in relation to education – an opposition to ‘quick fixes’.

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