Myth Six – Projects and activities are the best way to learn

This blog post summarises chapter 6 of my book Seven Myths about Education. It will be published on March 5th 2014 by Routledge. To read the introduction to this sequence of posts, click here. Click here to preorder if you are in the UK, and here if you are in the US.

The theory here is that in the real world, problems do not come neatly wrapped in boxes labelled ‘Maths’ or ‘English’. Thus, teaching pupils in these ‘subject silos’ is ineffective. Instead, we should teach pupils using projects or activities which more accurately reflect the problems they will face in the real world. Such projects also have the benefit of being more intrinsically motivating for pupils, and will help promote ‘independent learning’, a popular buzzword in modern education. Again, Ofsted, the RSA Opening Minds curriculum, the ATL and a variety of educationalists all make this practical or theoretical case. I argue that it is a confusion of aims and methods. Our aim should be for pupils to be able to tackle real-world problems by the end of their education; that does not mean that our method should involve endless practice of real-world problems. This is because real-world problems often involve a great deal of distracting information which overwhelms working memory. Likewise, our final aim should be for pupils to work independently; this does not mean that constant independent learning will achieve this aim. ‘Independent learning’ often just means discovery learning or unguided learning, which are highly inefficient and ineffective ways to learn new material. There is also a novice/expert issue here – experts are good at solving real world problems, but we shouldn’t ask novices just to mimic what experts do, otherwise we’re into cargo cult territory. Experts think in a qualitatively different way from novices.


9 thoughts on “Myth Six – Projects and activities are the best way to learn

  1. Pingback: Seven Myths about Education – Introduction | The Wing to Heaven

  2. Neil Garratt

    The interesting thing, to me as an amateur musician, is that when learning an instrument all this is taken for granted. Everyone knows that you don’t simply hammer away learning pieces of music, even though that is the aim. To be able to stand on a stage and seem to effortlessly fill a room with beautiful music, you must spend hours on rather boring, very repetitive technical exercises to polish your technique on your instrument, learn chords/arpeggios, scales, keys, etc. You must practice that until it’s automatic; your fingers dance across the keys without you really thinking about it.

    Even when learning pieces, you begin by breaking them into parts, playing difficult or fast passages very slowly, with much repetition. Most of my practice time bears little or no relation to the sounds I’ll actually produce for an audience.

    In jazz, there’s a famous quotation by legendary alto sax player Charlie Parker: first you learn your instrument, then you learn the music, then you forget all that and just play!

    Recognition that the seemingly effortless unconscious competence of an expert like Parker is won through many hours of boring, conscious practice.

    Also, even though musicians mostly play in groups, you do most of your learning and practice alone.

  3. The Wing to Heaven Post author

    This is so true. Dan Willingham uses that quotation from Charlie Parker in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? And I think that Anders Ericsson used studies on classical musicians in his analysis of expertise and came up with some pretty similar conclusions to yours – expert musicians pick out particularly difficult parts and ‘deliberately practise’ playing them. In my book I talk about how the best football systems train their footballers – again, through deliberate practice of particular aspects of the game, not endless full-size 11-a-side games.

  4. Pingback: Seven Myths about Education – available now | The Wing to Heaven

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  8. discreetteacher

    Daisy, I am not disagreeing with you however I have a question. How come the Dutch model – Realistic Mathematical Education – does so well, while breaking your ground rules here? It does use ‘activities’ to teach mathematics, it doesn’t start with purposeful practice but with student’s own methods that are ‘re-invented’ before being taken on to more formal procedures. I will provide a link, and I’m sure you’ll be able to help!

    RME –

    An extract to whet your appetite;

    The development of what is now known as RME started almost thirty years ago. The foundations for it were laid by Freudenthal and his colleagues at the former IOWO, which is the oldest predecessor of the Freudenthal Institute. The actual impulse for the reform movement was the inception, in 1968, of the Wiskobas project, initiated by Wijdeveld and Goffree. The present form of RME is mostly determined by Freudenthal’s (1977) view about mathematics. According to him, mathematics must be connected to reality, stay close to children and be relevant to society, in order to be of human value. Instead of seeing mathematics as subject matter that has to be transmitted, Freudenthal stressed the idea of mathematics as a human activity. Education should give students the “guided” opportunity to “re-invent” mathematics by doing it. This means that in mathematics education, the focal point should not be on mathematics as a closed system but on the activity, on the process of mathematization (Freudenthal, 1968).


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