Sunday, January 12, 2014

Project H

January 28th, I will go to the screening of If You Build It in San Francisco.  More on that once I've seen the film.  The back story is told pretty clearly here by Project H founder, Emily Pilloton.

Project H (Design initiatives for Humanity, Habitats, Health and Happiness) uses design as a tool to empower and inspire middle and high school students.  This isn't just about designing cool stuff, it's about shifting the education paradigm from students as passive knowledge recipients to students as active agents and building real projects to meet their community's needs.  The most famous project, that which the film describes, is Pilloton and her partner and co-founder Mathew Miller's sojourn from Berkeley to Bertie County, North Carolina, where they taught High School for a year.  The course: design and fabrication.  The final exam: cutting the ribbon on a farmer's market for the struggling rural community.

If the film is true to the trailer, the story goes something like this:  Young, idealistic and talented designers decide to use design as an education tool.  To prove their concept they choose a place of rural poverty, hard swept by the winds that have scoured our country in recent decades.  They take a small group of high school students and with them design and build a large-scale community project: a farmer's market.  Against all odds, their moment of inevitable defeat passes.  By reaching within themselves and outside the classroom to the community they're trying to impact, they succeed.

The idea of making students active agents rather than passive recipients, of having them engage in real-world projects rather than endless assignments that are practice for a day so remote it seems it will never come, of taking learning outside the classroom, of using the creativity and energy of students to address our communities' unmet needs  --these are not new.  But they are in decline.  We've gone from the idealism of the sixties and seventies, where there were lots of Emilys and Matts out there, trying novel approaches to education, building communes, envisioning a better world and then giving it a go, to today, where we test students, teachers and administrators into submission.  The drill inside most schools that I've seen lately, is first cover all the stuff that you have to so that the students will test well, then do some real teaching/learning --kind of like the party-- at the end.

Emily begins her TED talk by saying that she and Matt have moved to Bertie, North Carolina.  And throughout the talk she makes clear that she does not want to be an outsider who comes through with big ideas, erects a farmers market, makes a film and then leaves.  The question of what happens now in Bertie and with Emily, Matt and Project H, is worth asking.

I'm not questioning the value of project H's contribution.  I find project H inspiring.  It's the kind of project I could get excited about getting involved in.  I'm asking because I'm trying to figure out where to put my energy.  And if you're also interested in bringing back some form of hands-on learning, of where we should put our energy.

Could project H or something like it be a model for the resurgence of shop class?
I think the answer is a very qualified YES.  This is definitely the hard way to go.

Think of it like this.  To bring back shop class or the modern equivalent of what used to be shop class, we would need a consensus that we made a huge collective mistake in under-appreciating and eliminating the manual arts --wood shop, autoshop, home-ec and the rest.  We would need to recognize that both for our students and our society we need to bring them back.  We would need the political will and funding to bring the manual arts into the schools again.  We would need a new vision of what the appropriate early 21st century content of these programs should be.  We would need to articulate the context of these programs, that is how they would relate to jobs, careers, self-sufficiency and future learning.  We would need teacher training, community buy-in, partnership with industry.  In other words, it would comparatively easy.

It would be easy because in essence the solution would be a re-establishment.  It would happen within our existing structures: government taxing and spending, policy and implementation.  North Salem High School's woods manufacturing program is an excellent example of what such a program might look like.

Project H would be very hard to replicate on a large scale.  I have only seen the trailer, not yet the movie, but from the trailer it seems that the very thing that makes the movie good will make replication of a project H type program hard: it almost failed.  Two extremely bright and talented individuals worked with ten students for a year and still almost didn't realize their project.  That's a student-teacher ration of 5 to 1.  The teachers are young, very bright, energetic and fully in.  I imagine that they lived and breathed this project for the year they were engaged in it.  It's hard to replicate that kind of excitement, enthusiasm, dedication, perseverance and talent.  Yet sometimes, the hard way is the only way.

The promise of project H is that it goes deep.  It doesn't try to serve all students.  It doesn't pretend to be a grand solution.  My sense thus far is that what it does,  it does well.  This appeals to a cabinet maker.

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