There's a nice new term for it - synchronicity. By happy coincidence
Gael Woods, education reporter from Radio NZ, rings me in the
same week that I'm going to the NEMP forum where educators from
all over New Zealand are considering the implications of the 1997
NEMP national monitoring of information skills, social studies
and maths at years 4 and 8. Gael is interested in the 'project'
phenomenon, and specifically how many parents appear to invest
a considerable amount of time on their offsprings' projects. Could
I explain how projects help children to learn? Well, um...
Suddenly I'm forced to surface, examine and articulate the recognition
that has been growing steadily more uncomfortable in the years
that I've been teaching information skills, writing books on information
skills and researching information skills for my PhD. It's a recognition
that will challenge many teachers who will see it as a contradiction
of the very things I've been saying, writing and teaching for
many years. I think that:
Projects are often a totally overdone excuse for not very good
teaching practice and minimal learning outcomes. If you think
my 'Infolink' course is a synonym for projects, I think you should
read this article carefully.
Now that this heretical thought is out in the public confessional,
I'll use the NEMP results to try to justify my concern, and to
Let's start with the NEMP report on the national monitoring of
information skills at years 4/8. Information skills are one of
the eight essential skills of the National Curriculum Framework.
They are supposed to be taught in the context of each of the seven
Essential Learning Areas at every level. Because information skills
are pervasive across the curriculum, information skills will obviously
be monitored in every learning area, but:
Despite the substantial coverage of information skills in other
reports, it was always intended that national monitoring would
include one set of assessment specifically focused on information
skills, with special emphasis on skills which would be covered
only lightly or unsystematically in other reports. These skills
included developing appropriate questions, finding suitable sources
of information, searching those sources for specific information
needed, and interpreting, collating and reporting that information
(NEMP 1998: 10).
The NEMP Framework (page 12) is set out into 3 blocks representing
strategies, skills and processes needed for:
- Clarifying information needs
- Finding and gathering information
- Analysing and using information
The NEMP tasks were an interesting, thorough and well-researched
way of evaluating the separate areas that comprise 'the information
The most important message emerging from the framework is that
students possessing well developed information skills can perform
three main tasks effectively: clarifying information needs and
formulating good questions, finding and gathering information
that is relevant to the questions, and then analysing and using
that information to answer the questions. A substantial proportion
of the intellectual demands occur during the first and third of
these tasks: finding information is clearly important, but its
value is greatly dependent on the extent to which it can be validly
interpreted and used to answer important questions (NEMP 1998a:
The results were unambiguous. At both years 4 and 8 students
had more success locating information than they did with the first
and third areas - clarifying information needs, formulating good
questions, and analysing and using the information they located
to answer the questions. In other words the bits that require
location of information are substantially healthier than the bits
that require higher order thinking skills of selection, rejection,
analysis, synthesis and interpretation of information. This was
true of both information skills and social studies. This should
not have been unexpected given student performance in 1996 on
the NEMP reading and speaking assessment tasks:
Year 8 students performed substantially better than year 4 students
on tasks involving reading comprehension, but few students were
able to give full answers to questions that required them to construct
and write their own answers rather than select from multiple choice
options. Many students were also challenged when required to adjust
their reading technique to suit a particular purpose, such as
skimming quickly to find key information (NEMP 1997: 4).
The 1997 Social Studies Report reflects findings that reinforce
these concerns about students' difficulty in using whatever you
like to call them - higher order thinking , critical thinking,
analytical, interpretation, inferential, information processing
...but many students at both levels had difficulty identifying
and interpreting important messages that lay behind the surface
of the situations they were asked to consider. Many also struggled
to identify key features of different social and cultural environments,
and their implications for life in those environments. A high
proportion of students had difficulty identifying the merits of
both sides of a debate and then forming fair, balanced conclusions
(NEMP 1998b: 4).
When students have done project after project, it is also a concern
to realise the paucity of their general knowledge, even about
their own country:
However, a substantial proportion even of year 8 students displayed
major gaps in their knowledge of key information about New Zealand
and the world. For instance, Mount Cook, Waitangi and Cape Reinga
were placed in the wrong island by over 20% of year 8 students
(NEMP 1998b: 5).
Gael Wood's question hit to the heart of the dilemma. "If projects
are to get children to develop knowledge, why do they appear to
have so little knowledge?" Good question. I tried to explain to
Gael that projects have been acknowledged as an excellent way
for students to develop knowledge through guided enquiry since
the 1800's. Used well they are STILL the best way, given certain
preconditions and prerequisites. "Such as?" Such as:
students needing sufficient background knowledge and enthusiasm
to find out more about the topic...
students needing to be guided to develop their own questions
(even year 1's need more than one question)...
students needing to recognise simple 'fact' questions and more
challenging 'thinking' questions and ask the factual questions
first to gather a foundation of factual information before asking
students needing to be helped to ask questions flexibly, and
to see that answers don't 'pop' out and hit you in the eyeball,
but need to be built from what you read and saw and heard...
students needing to be helped to recognise the relevance of what
they saw, heard and read and to select and compare what they retrieved
and decide what the key ideas were and THINK about them and discuss
students needing help to recognise that information only becomes
knowledge when it is processed through the MIND - thought about,
gutted, stripped, analysed, discussed...
"Yes", she said, speaking from firsthand knowledge, "I see. But,
if so, why are so many parents still doing their kids' projects?"
We laughed about parents who meet in the library to discuss what
they'd got for 'their' latest project, and to get material for
the next one. The explanation below might be simplistic, but I
think it's worth considering in the light of the NEMP monitoring,
bearing in mind that this is not anecdotal evidence, but a true
picture of what children can and can't do, their strengths and
weaknesses, on tasks that are both fair and relevant.
I think that the major problem with 'projects' is that few ever
go beyond the information gathering and pasting up stages that
result when students (or their parents) head off with one or two
questions to 'find information'. Even when information related
to the questions is pasted up, manually or electronically as paper-based
or multimedia projects, this information has seldom been compared,
analysed, thought about or discussed to the point that it has
truly become knowledge.
Computers have, if anything, exacerbated the problem. A's for
slabs of pasted up Encarta that look good? Plagiarised slabs of
Internet are now the order of the day at Secondary and University.
Everyone laughs when you remind them of the 'project syndrome'
- children painstakingly lettering the project title, and drawing
a pretty border before pasting up some pictures and slabs of text
- what is known as 'information pastiche' or 'collectomania'.
But the project syndrome is alive and well. Computers have added
a bewildering variety of fonts, and unartistic children are much
happier, I suspect, with a world of clipart and downloading potential
at their fingertips. But has having the world of information at
their fingertips actually improved the way they process - select,
reject, analyse and interpret - the information in order to transform
it into knowledge? The NEMP findings indicate the opposite.
There is evidence of what I call cognitive bypass learning -
where facts come through the keyboard or pages and land on the
screen or a bit of paper without being processed through the mind.
If all you ever do is paste up, manually or electronically, information
that you find, if you never need to think about it, wrestle mentally
with the concepts, compare, contrast, select, reject, collate
and make inferences from it, you might be computer literate but
you are certainly NOT INFORMATION LITERATE.
The problem is not the project method, but what we're doing with
it. My 1984 Action Learning model suggests six main iterative
stages which learners use by toggling backwards and forwards:
1. Deciding what you need to know, formulating questions.
2. Finding information from a variety of sources and media.
3. Skimming and scanning to get the gist and select relevant
4. Recording only what you need to answer your questions in the
most economic form.
5. Presenting the key messages using a variety of media.
6. Evaluating each stage - the process and the product - as you
Clearly, the NEMP study shows that Stage 2 is reasonably well
done at both years 4 and 8, but that Stages 1, 3 and 4 need more
The heart of a project is being able to get the gist of a subject,
and to work out the key ideas or arguments, and to find evidence
to support these ideas and arguments. In order to do this the
learner must be able to scan and skim, sort , sift, select and
reject information, analyse it, think about it, compare it, relate
it, examine it, etc etc etc. Students who can do this have no
problem with secondary essays or research and will transfer these
analytical skills easily to a tertiary learning context. If students
are not developing these skills, the problem is not with the project
method but with what we're doing with it.
10% of New Zealand primary and secondary teachers have done the
175 hour Infolink course. This is a world first. Clearly our students
are performing reasonably well on finding and gathering information
- possibly better than students in other countries. If we were
to pay more attention to the questions students ask, and how we
guide students to process the information they retrieve through
their heads, we could be doing better. These skills are infinitely
teachable. Yes, it takes time, but if time is not invested little-by-little
year-by-year, by the time they get to secondary and tertiary,
even more time needs to be invested in remedial work.
The Getting a handle on information literacy booklet which is
free to Good Teacher subscribers tackles these processes of clarifying
information needs and analysing and processing information. The
NEMP study is a timely reminder that the information age will
require students with more sophisticated information literacy
skills, and that we, as teachers need to see this as a key area
for our own professional development.