Exam Week; hardly a phrase that conjures visions of innovation in pedagogy or laughter and collaboration among students. And yet, for 10th grade U.S. history students, all of these qualities were on display yesterday during a most-inventive final exam. Teacher Molly Smith ’82, in lieu of a standard multiple choice or blue book exam, had devised a pair of historical whodunits for students to solve and, in the process, demonstrate their knowledge of history.
In one room students playing the roles of various real-life individuals gathered information to solve the actual murder of a governor in colonial New York. Meanwhile, in the next classroom over, another group worked their way through an escape room challenge that required them to research and analyze historical incidents from the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
Later when I asked one of the students engaged in cracking the escape room code how her exam went, she furrowed her brow and said, “I thought it was going to be easy, but actually it was really hard – and also fun!”
The stark contrast between Molly’s Project-Based Learning (PBL) exam and those we recall (often, in my case, in still-vivid nightmares) from our own school days demonstrates that, contrary to conventional wisdom, joy and rigor can - and I would argue should - be a common and seamless pairing. As humans, we thrive on overcoming challenges, and, as we all know, the opportunity to master difficult tasks, particularly in collaboration with others, can be intensely rewarding. Brain research has also taught us* that “play is critical to the emotional and intellectual development of every child. We must create appropriate opportunities for play at every grade level.”
There may well always be a place in schools for the kind of cumulative production of factual information that the exams of our childhood epitomized. Surely, the ability to summon discrete pieces of knowledge is valuable and necessary, even in the age of Google, when the sum of human knowledge is, quite literally, in the palm of our hands. But we must also make room for new ways for students to demonstrate what they have learned (content knowledge), what they can do with it (analysis, synthesis, and hypothesis), and how these learning experiences will shape their developing hearts and minds. And all educators need to obliterate the false dichotomy between joy and rigor, relegating that antiquated distinction to the ashes of educational history.
* Mind, Brain, and Education Research Informed Strategies, from the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning
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Project-based learning is a new rage in education. Never mind that it’s a century old. Washington Post, December 12, 2018
8 Play-Based Strategies to Engage Youth in Learning Edutopia, October 16, 2014