I’m sure we all have stories about being a child and coming hope, filled with excitement, to tell your parents about your science project. What to make? How to make it? The possibilities were endless. As you discussed it with one or both parents, ideas were tossed about. Eventually, your parent’s ideas begin to take over. Eventually you “agree” to a project idea. In my case, it was a computer keyboard. I was in sixth grade and not particularly interested in the idea, but felt I would disappoint my dad if I tried to do something else. Of course, I had very little to do with the making of anything. I sat beside my dad while he worked, complained, told me how lucky I was to have him “guide” me. You know what I’m talking about. The outcome, was a nice project. It worked, people were impressed, but I learned nothing. It actually turned me off to technology for quite some time.
Although the story above is about my home life, the same could easily apply to school. It is so easy, as an educator to take over and lead rather than “guide” someone. It is easier to lead the process because you know what to expect and how to judge the results. No surprises, but the end result is a student who loses interest and tunes out or never engages in the first place.
In order to change the results, you need to change the teaching methods. Instead of only giving students pre-selected articles to read and respond to, why not have the students do research on a subject? Better yet, give them the subject and have them decide on a project that uses that subject and combine it with their own areas of interest to produce something new and of value to the student. The student may submit a proposal of their idea, with reference material to back up their idea for approval. The student, knowing that the project is something of their own creation is far more likely to dig in and find the materials willingly rather than being forced to search for something that holds no interest or meaning for them.
The value of this method comes from the creation or making of something and the deep satisfaction of being the creator. Our ancestors created out of need (weapons, utensils, etc.) and a creative need (artwork on cave walls) whereas we often get ready made. The value is lost with the lack of understanding of the process.
It might seem difficult to do online, but it really is the same process. Set up the ground rules for the project, ask for a submission of the proposal and if possible, have a video conference to discuss the work. Students can present at the end of the semester, while keeping the class informed of their project, with video check-in, forums, journals, the options are endless.
This doesn’t mean that I think you should completely remove the more typical methods. Having students do some required reading and writing is fine, as long as you give them a chance to put the knowledge they already have, their interests and the course material towards something of their own creation. If you do, I believe your students will learn more and never forget your class or you. What more could a teacher ask for?