“Failure is success in progress.” —Albert Einstein
“At the outset of a project, enthusiasm and idealism are high. As educators, we approach our project-based learning (PBL) with an eye toward success, but what happens when things don’t turn out as planned?
My co-teacher and I launched a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) video project on World War I and World War II in our integrated American history and English language arts class. The project married the concept of CYOA books with videos where viewers choose what to do next. Rather than have each group make its own video, we decided to have our whole classes divide up the tasks to create one giant adventure.
Students were placed in different teams based on self-identified skills, and roles included writers, actors, directors, artists for props, lighting and camera operators, and video editors. Each class created a storyboard on a whiteboard wall, plotting all of the paths and choices like a sideways tree. Groups of students began writing scripts for each scene, including details of the setting and props.
The students did an excellent job of distributing roles and diagramming the big-picture storyboard, but they struggled with the rest of the project. Ultimately, we were unable to finish the videos, but the challenges gave us new insights on how to successfully implement this type of project in the future.”
Going to school isn’t a job. Students don’t get paid. And yes, they are forced to be there. Therefore I am always hesitant to apply business advice to schools. But more and more I am seeing that project management strategies often do apply to student groups in PBL.
In order to help an employee find motivation, the the proper “trap” should be identified leading to applying the appropriate solution. I believe this can be adapted to leading a class of collaborative groups using PBL.
This trap can be summarized as “I don’t care enough to do this.” I would argue that this is the most prevalent motivational problem that we have in school because of our one size fits all, mandated curriculum. PBL is a great approach because it gives the teacher freedom to customize their class to their students’ interests and abilities.
The first step in fixing a values mismatch is to know your students. Build relationships with your kids and discover their passions. Then PBL projects can be designed to connect with them. I have even designed an entire class project with only one student in mind, that is struggling to engage in my class. Students will find more value in a class where they have a positive relationship with the teacher and they feel like the content addresses issues that matter to them.
Lack of Self Efficacy
In this trap students are saying “I don’t think that I am able to do this.” Except students rarely say this out loud. Instead they avoid the task with disruptive behavior or shut down by sleeping or daydreaming. Oftentimes this student tries to hide the embarrassment of lack of ability or belief in themselves from both the teacher and other students. It is crucial that teachers see through these smokescreens and identify the real cause of student actions.
Again the first step is knowing your students and then applying the appropriate scaffolds to help them succeed. Have you identified your students who are EL or special ed? What about the students who don’t have an official “label” but need support? Show students quality examples and give them outlines and other scaffolds to get started. Acknowledge when they are successful to help them build confidence. Most importantly remove scaffolds when students don’t need them anymore and point out the growth to students.
“Remember at the beginning of the year, you needed my help to multiply fractions. Now you can do it all by yourself!”
Sometimes students are feeling that “I am too upset to do this.” One of the reasons that I like to start class by meeting kids at the door is to check on their emotional state when they get there. This goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If students are angry or depressed, then they will not be able to focus on school.
Be a caring listener. Have a private conversation with the student and hear out what is bothering them. I often ask students if they would like to talk to a counselor or another trusted adult if I can’t give them the time that they need during class. We rarely can fix whatever is bothering them in the middle of a busy class but students must know that we care about their well being more than the content that we teach. Ask students if they think that can do the tasks of the class that day. Once they have been truly heard, most students can focus on what they need to.
This trap is when students say, “I don’t know what went wrong with this.” I think in schools this is usually an avoidance ploy of the above, Lack of Self Efficacy variety. Students (and adults too) don’t want to admit failures or weaknesses so they shift to excuses of “I was too busy” or blaming group members for not completing tasks.
One solution that can help student groups is teaching them to hold each other accountable. I like to use a Student Scrum Board or Trello for groups to regulate themselves. With a clear plan for project management, then students can focus on the actual problem of lack of skills or perhaps a values mismatch as being the real reason that work is not being completed.
None of these are magic, but it is always important to know our students and to properly assess why they may not be successful on a given day. I also think that it is critical to their growth to acknowledge what has been holding them back and how they have overcome it. Then the next time that they are feeling unmotivated they can learn to self analyze the cause and self correct.
Who controls most classrooms? Whose voice dominates? Who decides what is learned, how it is learned, and with whom? Who determines the assessments and what they look like?
When first learning about Project Based Learning, many teachers skeptically ask me “How do I keep kids on task?” or “How do I ensure that students learn all of my content standards?” Often what they are actually questioning is “Does PBL lead to classroom chaos?”
Behind these questions is a fear of losing control. Educators worry that if they allow student voice and choice, their well managed class will turn into a free for all. They don’t say it out loud, but these teachers fear Anarchy as seen on the left hand extreme of the Control Continuum with students having one hundred percent control and the teacher exerting none.
They imagine students doing whatever they feel like with the teacher asserting zero input. When educators think about inquiry based or student driven work, they wonder, “What is the teacher is doing? Just sitting back reading a book or playing a game on their phone?” They picture the teacher as a clueless babysitter ignoring a mob of spoiled rotten children. They imagine poor substitute teachers that they have observed and think “No way!”
But this is a straw man argument and one of the biggest myths about PBL. No one is advocating for Anarchy in the classroom!
To demonstrate how ridiculous this fear is, I want to consider the opposite extreme: Tyranny. On the right side of the Control Continuum, the teacher has one hundred percent control and the students have zero.
At this logical extreme, the teacher commands every student action. The teacher is a military dictator controlling every thought through power and fear. Students are marionettes, powerless to think or react without permission. Relationships, feelings, and emotions are irrelevant as the supreme leader dictates content into the brains of his subjects. They will obey, and they will learn at his command.
Just as the metaphor of teacher as all powerful dictator is absurd, so is the teacher as powerless babysitter. Student centered inquiry is NOT a free for all. It is NOT students doing whatever they feel like, whenever they feel like doing it. These analogies are a thought exercise to show that both extremes of the Control Continuum are equally absurd. No one is advocating for the style of teaching at either end. Both are straw man arguments that if they did exist somewhere would warrant firing the teacher.
But educators rarely question the right side of the continuum. What if the teacher has too much control? Does the climate of many classrooms stifle creativity and actual learning? There is not the same fear associated with the right end of the Control Continuum as with the left. A strong classroom leader (but not to the dictator extreme) was the model that many teachers experienced when they were in school and is their comfort zone.
A further danger of the fear of student voice and choice is that some teachers don’t believe that “their students” can handle self directed learning. Sometimes this is because of the age of the children or maybe their socio-economic background. This is dangerous thinking. We know that students will rise to meet expectations and vise versa (The Power of Expectations). We also know that implicit bias can prevent our students of color from being pushed as much as they should be. ALL STUDENTS can self direct their learning with proper scaffolding and support. Never sell your students short of what they can become or do!
PBL as Framework
PBL is actually the opposite of Anarchy. It is a framework, a structure, a design process for student centered learning for both the teacher and the kids. PBL has protocols to guide students through content standards while giving them voice in what and how they learn.
We will explore the what the middle of the Control Continuum looks like in a future post and reflect on where the ideal spot is for both teachers and students. But for now, can we all agree that the fear of PBL leading to chaos is a misguided myth? Don’t go to the straw man extreme of Anarchy as an excuse not to try PBL. Give it a shot and you will learn to love the process and students will excel beyond your wildest imagination!
One of the weaknesses of our modern education system is that content has become so siloed that students rarely see the connections between subjects or connections with their world. Integrated projects can break down these walls when students investigate authentic problems that cross subject lines.
I have team-taught social studies with English and math with science. I have also designed numerous projects that integrated multiple content areas. Integrated projects can be challenging to plan and manage, even for experienced PBL teachers. Here are 6 tips that I have learned to make integrated projects powerful learning experiences for all students.
6 Tips For Powerfully Integrated Projects
1. Get everyone on board
I tend to get really excited when brainstorming integrated projects. A few years ago, some colleagues and I came up with a Shark Tank-style project solving issues that are remnants of the modern Industrialization. We were mostly humanity teachers but thought that it would make a great school-wide project.
In our eagerness sharing with the rest of the staff, we overwhelmed them and teachers felt forced into something that they weren’t comfortable with. People deserve the opportunity to process what they are being asked to be a part of.
What I learned is that it is as important to get group buy-in, as it is to plan something great. For future ideas, I created a Google Doc pitch of the concept. Then I shared it with commenting rights to everyone involved a week before we were scheduled to discuss it. This gave everyone an opportunity for their voice to be heard both in support and with concerns. It also gave time for people to process the proposal without feeling overwhelmed by my zeal.
The result was a huge success as people who were hesitant before, now were committed to join.
I hate when business people want to apply, without context, their ideas to schools. But this modern take on management is very compatible with PBL classrooms.
Author Kim Scott has been co-founder and CEO of multiple tech and consulting companies and a high level manager at both Google and Apple. She has been advisory consultant to leaders at Dropbox and Twitter. She has managed companies working in Kosovo, Moscow, and Israel. In other words, she has led at some of the best and most innovative companies in the world.
I have adapted a management quote from her book, Radical Candor, Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity to our school setting:
“When I was at business school staff meeting, I was taught that my job as a manager teacher was to ‘maximize shareholder value‘ ‘raise test scores.’ In life, I learned that too much emphasis on shareholder value test scores actually destroys value learning, as well as morale. Instead, I learned to focus first on staying centered myself, so that I could build real relationships with each of the people who worked for me my students. Only when I was centered and my relationships were strong could I fulfill my responsibilities as a manager teacher to guide my team class to achieve the best results. Shareholder value High test scores are the result. It’s not at the core, though. ”
A couple of thoughts, in the business world, data and metrics about making money really is the point. None of the companies that she started, or places that she worked for were non-profit charities. Their purpose was to make cash, yet she says focusing on profits over people is actually counterproductive to that goal.
Now all of these companies use data and make decisions based upon it. But her core values are building personal relationships with her team and giving honest feedback to them. Qualitative data based on observations and relationships is more important than raw, quantitative data. Both businesses and schools involve shaping imperfect humans. Scott understands that relationships are the key to motivation and growth.
The second thing is self care, which many teachers struggle with due to the many demands placed on them. We can not be who we need to be for others if we are personally drowning due to stress, poor health, etc. Take time for yourself to go on a hike or other exercise, make a delicious, home cooked meal, or read a book. Add it to your calendar if you must. It’s vital to your success!
So if business folks want to evaluate schools, then they had better come from a human centered approach instead of a results driven one. Since even in their world, it is more effective.