One of the most common misconceptions about Project Based Learning is that student voice and choice turns the classroom into a free-for-all. People envision students pursuing random passions at will. When an educator voices this fear, they assume that the teacher is not doing much. They wonder how PBL teachers guarantee that the content standards are met?
When I think about designing a PBL project, I am reminded of the Spanish Netflix show, Money Heist. In the same genre as the Ocean’s Eleven heist movies, the TV drama features a team of misfit criminals robbing the royal mint of Spain. Instead of being villains, the robbers are portrayed as Robin Hoods against the capitalist system.
All of the thieves take on city names as aliases to protect their true identities in case anyone is captured. Key members are Berlin, Tokyo, Denver, Rio, Helsinki, and Nairobi. Everyone is nicknamed after a city except for the master planner, the Professor.
The Professor is a control freak who has been designing the heist for years and meticulously considered every detail. He has blueprints and a model of the mint. He knows the key officials and their routines. He has chosen his team with great care based on their personalities and skillsets. He knows the practices of the police and special forces. He anticipates every move. He has contingency plans for when things go wrong and back up plans to his back up plans. He quite literally has thought of everything.
During the heist, the Professor is on the outside monitoring the police and media reactions. He communicates to the team, working on the inside of the mint. As things go wrong, the Professor calls multiple audibles from his plethora of backup plans. As you might guess, eventually something surprises the team that even the Professor in all of his meticulous planning did not anticipate.
Berlin and Tokyo, two of the leaders on the inside, lose communication with the Professor and are on their own. They know the plans but also have their own thoughts and desires. Tokyo pivots and reacts to surprise circumstances. The Professor’s plans are great, but improvisation is required. In the end, all that matters is that they accomplish two goals: steal the money and get the team out alive.
Planning PBL projects is like planning a bank robbery. The teacher sets up a problem for students to engage and solve. She painstakingly considers every angle and plans protocols and routines for students to be successful. But just like the Professor, she is on the “outside” of the actual project work. Students have to complete the project themselves. Oftentimes they have different ways of thinking, processing, and moving forward than the teacher. And that’s OK. The teacher has to be willing to step back from the plans, even though they took so much work to create, and follow students as they create their own paths toward success.
As long as content standards are learned, discipline skills are mastered, and SEL competencies are developed it doesn’t matter if you have to scrap your entire master plan. Be prepared to Flex like Stretch Armstrong.
Planning PBL is easier if you have relationships with students. The better that you know your kids, the better your plans will be, customized to their strengths, passions, and quirks.
When you are really good you will anticipate how students will pivot from your plans and prepare options.
When you are really, really good, you will plan opportunities for students to blow your plans out of the water and take the project to places you’ve never dreamed of.
- Relationships trump plans.
- Culture trumps plans.
- Kids trump plans.
- Curiosity trumps plans.
Yet you still need to plan like their lives depend on it. Plan like the Professor; Pivot like Tokyo.