Schneider's From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse, Chapter 3: The Project Method

Michael Pershan and I, in our chapter-by-chapter review of Jack Schneider's From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education, now take issue with the project method and, more generally, the promotion of academic research. I'll make a comment or two about the chapter and the project method, and then turn to responding to Michael.

Of the chapters and ideas Schneider has presented thus far (Bloom's Taxonomy, multiple intelligences), it's hardest to get a grip on the project method. The reason comes in the second paragraph: "The project method is so well accepted that modern educators simply view it as property of the educational commons" (p. 79). I found myself grasping to Schneider's few hints about what education was like before the project method, and imagined classroom activity based around lecture, exercises, drills, and recitations. Certainly there were some counterexamples, but I'll take Schneider's word that William Heard Kilpatrick made the project method famous, and made himself famous in the process.

In the last chapter about multiple intelligences, Schneider discusses Howard Gardner's efforts to promote his work: writing books published by popular presses, making speaking engagements, and supporting the work of those using (and sometimes misusing) the idea of multiple intelligences. In this chapter, a considerable amount of attention is given to Kilpatrick's desire to achive "power and influence" (Kilpatrick's diary, as cited by Schneider, p. 81). In his introduction, Schneider gave us four characteristics of research that traverses the divide between research and practice: perceived significance, philosophical compatibility, occupational realism, and transportablility. Here we seem to be concerned with a characteristic not of the research, but of the researcher. I don't feel like Schneider makes the distinction entirely clear, but I think you can relate the ego and ambition of the researcher to the perceived significance of the research.

In his post, Michael takes issue with Kilpatrick's quest for educational fame. Michael used "It's the Celebrities That We Need to Doubt" as the title of his post and warns us, "Famous people become famous because they want to be famous, and we need to judge their ideas with the skepticism that sort of person deserves." Fame can be a tricky thing in academia. In an enlightening (yet private1) Google+ conversation last year, I heard from several faculty members that despite the stated requirements for publishing, teaching, and service, what your department and university would really love is for you to help make them famous.

Note the difference between making your university famous and making yourself famous. Teachers College didn't need much help from Kilpatrick to make it famous, and Schneider makes it clear that Kilpatrick was interested in his own fame, hoping to be given the same esteem and recognition that Dewey had achieved. I share Michael's skepticism of self-promoters. In my teaching career here in Colorado, the only researcher I heard much about was Robert Marzano. Marzano runs an independent research lab here in Colorado and does work throughout the country. He sells lots of books, workshops, and "customized educational services." In grad school, on the other hand, I hear next to nothing about Marzano's work. I have a sense that Marzano has done good work, but perhaps quality has wavered as he's grown his operations. I have an even stronger sense, however, that Marzano's work just doesn't interest academia because it's not from academia, and he's not in academia. Marzano made himself a product and that's not a welcomed move by (at least some) people in scholarly circles.

I can think of a few other makes-some-people-uneasy examples even closer to academia. One is the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. Founded by Lauren Resnick, IFL offers workshops, contracts with districts for professional development, and self-publishes its research. One key product for them is Accountable Talk®, and yes, I have to put that registered trademark symbol there because they trademarked it. I think some might look at Jo Boaler's effort with some skepticism, and Dan Meyer attracts some doubters, too. (It sure sounds like Kilpatrick would have loved being recognized for a well-watched TED Talk.) This might make readers of this blog uncomfortable, but I wouldn't doubt there are teachers who are skeptical of teachers using social media, thinking we're just in this for the fame.

Some of this sentiment is rooted in a culture spanning K-12 and higher education that says we educators are supposed to be humble, to be selfless, and to be dedicated to the service of others. I admit to feeling this way: just let me serve the public and, in return, let me be supported by the public. In my current work with teachers, I'm happy the National Science Foundation provides the funds for us to work together, rather than doing the work for the district on a contract basis. I don't want the role of salesman. That said, there's some unclear middle ground between this culture and edupreneuership. For example, I've seen some negative reactions on Twitter towards those who try to sell things on Teachers Pay Teachers, yet positive reactions towards those who have self-published a book on Amazon or co-authored something for NCTM.

Yet somewhere between the selfless and self-promoting cultures there needs to be the realization that if we're interested in research being taken up by K-12 educators, it simply isn't enough to let the science speak for itself. If it makes people feel better, think of it as "outreach" instead of "marketing," and "sharing" instead of "promotion." Schneider gives considerable credit to Gardner and Kilpatrick's efforts to widely share/promote their work for the success of multiple intelligences and the project method. Now that sharing is easier than ever, I'm hopeful that we'll see more blending of the research world and the practice world, and what might have been seen as self-promotion in Kilpatrick's day morphs into a genuine practice of a sharing-based educational community.

Note: Michael Pershan (@mpershan) and I are reading Jack Schneider's book From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education. Our previous posts:
Chapter 1: Bloom's Taxonomy (Michael's post, my reply) Chapter 2: Multiple Intelligences (My post, Michael's reply)

  1. I love that Google+ offers so much flexibility to make conversations public vs. private, but I'm frustrated by the number of high-quality posts shared only in small circles of math educators. But that's another post for another day.