Choice and Learning, Part III... A Case Study: The Science Fair Project

In a few recent blogs, I've shared my belief that giving our students freedom to make choices--including freedom to make mistakes and experience the consequences--is the most important aspect of learning... provided, of course, that we adults monitor and guide such choices carefully.

This can make sense in theory but offer a far greater challenge in real life application.  Consider a parenting and teaching classic: the science fair project.

Should the parent leave the work of the project entirely up to the child?  What if they do everything wrong and don’t learn?  Does the parent have the child do “most” of the work, but still offer check-ins periodically to ensure they’re on track?  But what does “on track” mean… does the parent allow it to be messy, sloppy, inaccurate, have misspellings, etc.?  When the student brings it to school, what if he is embarrassed or humiliated by his work in comparison to others?  What if all the other parents are much more involved in their children's projects and my child suffers as a result?

It kind of makes you wonder why we do science projects!

But that’s exactly what we should consider for the science project or any other learning task: Why are we doing this?  What is the purpose? 

Here’s what the purpose of the science project is not: to produce the most beautifully perfect displays you’ve ever seen, showing the most perfect, on-the-mark results that reflect the prodigy-like scientific acumen of our students.  No—the purpose of the science project is for each student to learn.  To learn steps we might take if we have a question, observation, or hypothesis and want to test it and learn more about it.  To learn to closely follow directions.  To learn to critically evaluate our work to see if it is neat, communicated clearly enough for others to understand, and appropriately reflects our best efforts. 

Different children might require different types and amounts of parent involvement to accomplish these learning goals.  Some students may require a parent to watch over their shoulder at various points with a helpful, “No, wait… take a look at your conclusion again.  Remember—you need to carefully read the directions…”  Some students may need some guidance: “Imagine if this was a project you knew nothing about.  Do you think there’s any clearer way to explain your procedure?”  Some students might require a parent to challenge them: “Is playing a video game right now the best use of your time?  Are you giving yourself enough time to complete your science project?” 

And even with this and other coaching, some students may need to experience the consequences of a less-than-stellar grade or disappointment with their end results to learn how to make better choices in the future.  That's okay, too.  Our goal is never perfection--it's learning.

The best parent involvement in any task gives the student the freedom to make choices, but helps them make those choices mindfully.  The student won’t learn if the parent removes their opportunity to make choices—even (especially!) incorrect ones—but, depending on the individual student, he/she also might miss valuable learning opportunities without some parent prompting.  This is why we speak so often about the “school-parent partnership,” as it takes close communication, coordination, and work from teachers and parents together for a student to learn all that he or she might.

That partnership can be tested in moments when the student makes the wrong choice.  He may not read directions closely enough on that project and earn a poor grade even though he invested many hours, or she might find herself embarrassed that her project isn’t as neat or attractive as others.  In those moments, parents can be helpful in prompting reflection: Why do you think you earned this grade?  What lessons are you taking away from this experience?  And if parents are ever unsure about the answers to these questions, or worried that their child is learning the wrong lessons, they are always encouraged to discuss this with the teacher.  Every teacher should always be prepared to answer the question, “What are you hoping that my child learns with this assignment?”

In order for a student to learn best, he or she must be given enough freedom to make choices (including the wrong ones), must be given opportunities to experience the consequences (good or bad) for his/her choices, and still must have appropriate adult engagement.  And that engagement is best if it’s in the context of a strong parent-teacher partnership.

But a huge amount of the learning that our students experience isn’t strictly academic.  Social and emotional learning in these crucial years of early childhood through early adolescence can make the science fair project seem like a cakewalk.  I believe that same model of choice and learning applies to social and emotional learning, as well.  However, sometimes (often?) the negative consequences of incorrect choices during social and emotional learning can be much more upsetting than anything they experience academically.  How we navigate that will be the topic of the next blog… stay tuned!

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