Wednesday, November 14, 2012

C21: Roanoke Island Project

I walked into our 8th grade History class the other day just as a student was completing his presentation of the video below.  The project, designed by Mrs. Shelley Kutliroff, epitomized so much of what we mean when we talk about 21st Century learning, and how it differs from more traditional classroom methods, that I thought it was worth sharing.

The class was learning about what is often referred to as the "lost colony" of Roanoke - a late 16th century English settlement on an island off the coast of North Carolina whose settlers mysteriously vanished somewhere between 1587 and 1590.  In a traditional classroom, the story of the Roanoke settlers would be covered in a few minutes of lecture, perhaps buttressed by a paragraph or two in a text book, and then assessed with a question or two on that chapter's test.  Kids with a knack for names and places would get it right, those without it might get it wrong, and only the real history buffs would retain any of the information more than a week or two after the exam.

In this project, however, the story of Roanoke was used a tool to accomplish pedagogical goals far more meaningful than honing a student's ability to answer questions on Jeopardy or in a game of Trivial Pursuit.  The assignment, in essence, was as follows: Imagine you are an archaeologist studying the colony of Roanoke.  Present a hypothesis, backed up by evidence, as to what caused the settlers to disappear and present it in an engaging manner to your classmates.  In one fell swoop, "read, memorize, and spit back" were transformed into "read, think, innovate, create, communicate, and entertain."  Instead of passive consumers of history, 8th graders were momentarily transformed into authors of history.  Though their "hypotheses" were far-fetched at best and at times a bit zany, it was a learning experience that emphasized process over product; one that challenged students to experience what Howard Gardner calls "disciplined thought" (the authentic thought process of a particular discipline) on a developmentally appropriate level.  It was also a learning experience that gave students the opportunity to synthesize various media and communicate the information in a way that is germane to the world they live in and the world they will soon have to lead.  Furthermore, it was an experience which reminded kids, long after they graduated from Kindergarten, that their imaginations are still of great value to us and ought to be prized by them.

Of course, the great irony is that after an exercise like this one which focused on skill-building and methods of thinking rather than rote memorization, our students are far more likely to have etched the names Roanoke and John White, the word Croatoan and the year 1587, into their long-term memory than they would have had they merely heard it, read it, and regurgitated it for a test.

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