When a link to an article titled How to stop discipline issues forever popped into my Facebook feed, I clicked on it, obviously. Discipine, classroom management... those topics always seem at the forefront of what teachers need/want to solve, learn more about, and seek advice on.
The ASCD Edge blog post by Mark Barnes was interesting, if brief and incomplete in its how-to methodology. But the basis for the commentary was simple - get students focused on something that interests them and discipline problems will disappear.
In theory, I agree wholeheartedly. Engaged students are just that - engaged. They are focused on the project in front of them, and will give it their all to completion. Make it fun, make it interesting, make it relevant, and students WILL do it.
Let's step away from theory and into the real classroom though. Some subjects lend themselves more readily to project based learning - social studies for example comes to mind. Learning about places, people, cultures, all are easily student driven, given the right guidelines and guidance. Tell the kids what their outcomes should be, and set them free to learn and explore. Just some close monitoring, prodding, guiding, and most students will meet the objectives set forth.
Other subjects aren't so easily conformed to project based learning, at least in my mind and experience. Math is the worst it seems, the most impossible to allow students to direct themselves. With a subject so skill based and sequential by nature, allowing students the freedom to design, explore and meander mentally through the material seems fraught with disaster.
Reading and writing also seem to require a bit more direction from an instructor, giving guidance, advice and skills along the way. Much of the 'work' can certainly be individualized to meet the needs of students' interests, allowing them much freedom and leeway in the choice of reading materials and writing topics.
Anytime someone advocates allowing students to direct their own learning, I approach the thinking with caution. I'm all for choice, knowing choice gives students power, which is an effective tool in engagement. But I also believe students need to attain a certain basic set of core skills and knowledge in education. I don't see the average student motivated enough to accomplish this on their own with little guidance/instruction from a teacher.