Thursday, January 3, 2008

Shame on National Geographic

Wesley Fryer shared information about a new contest for teachers and kids sponsored by The National Geographic on his blog, Encourage Hands-on Science Inquiry! Winners get a trip to Australia, my second home.

Cool, right?

Not so fast!

I read Wes' post and then the National Geographic site. I have no idea what sort of "experiment" or "exploration" a kid might do to win this contest. I know of few teachers who can do justice to the spirit of the subject matter.

Perhaps the contest is really just a sweepstakes or a lottery.

The first rule of project-based or problem-based learning is that the learner must have a reasonable chance of getting their head around solving the problem, or taking a reasonable swipe at solving the problem. We frequently fail by asking students to solve problems too adult, abstract or large for them to tackle. The other common mistake is posing a problem that is overly vague. The National Geographic contest offers no clues for what a kid might do. This invariably advantages kids whose parents or teachers direct the activity.

How many teachers know what hands-on geography is? How many kids can figure this out alone? What has National Geographic done to help?

Is hands-on science/geography merely collecting stuff? Is it experimental? How does collecting American flora or fauna connect to "understanding" Australia?

If one of my graduate students authored this challenge, they would be at serious risk of failure.

Oh yeah, be sure to wash your hands with hand sanitizer. (That's one of the few details offered by The National Geographic)

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