'Doing Projects' vs. Project-Based Learning: Five Questions to Improve Project Design
Do you remember the projects you completed as a kid?
I remember mine well.
As a 3rd grader, after learning about the universe I built a mobile model of the solar system. I used foam balls and paint to construct each planet. As a 6th grader, after learning about Medieval Europe, I built a castle out of sugar cubes. I remember vividly using toothpicks and nylon string to build the drawbridge. As a 7th grader, after learning about the scientific process, I ran a science experiment on how polymers effect plant growth. I remember displaying my findings on a cardboard trifold beside a hundred other peers inside of a huge auditorium.
I also vividly remember what I did after every exhibition.
After each showcase of my learning, I promptly disposed of my projects in a large dumpster outside the back of school. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Pieces of old projects; bent cardboard, foam and used popsicle sticks leaked out of the sides.
Do you have similar memories?
The problem with these kinds of projects, is not that they aren’t fun or memorable- they certainly beat learning from a textbook, but rather, it’s that they hardly resemble the way projects work in the real world.
In the real world, projects don’t start once the learning is complete, they are the what drives the learning in the first place.
My brother, a computer programmer, learns to write code based on new software he needs to develop. My good friend, a music producer, learns to overlay new beats based on the album he hopes to produce. And another of my brothers, an intellectual property lawyer, uncovers new case law depending on the client he will represent.
While every one of these projects relied on a foundational skill set, new skills and learning were acquired based on the needs of the project.
The learning took place through the project.
‘Doing Projects’ vs. Project- Based Learning
If, as teachers we hope to create projects that reflect the way learning takes place in the ‘real world,’ we need to design experiences, assessments, and lessons that reflect real world learning. Here are five key questions to ask yourself when designing your next project.
Question #1: Does the project require in-depth inquiry in order to solve?
In the real world, whether remodelling a home, starting a business, or designing a new product, you must acquire a deep understanding across a range of subjects in order to be successful. To develop a business plan, you have to understand as much about assets and liabilities as you do market research and customer feedback. When remodelling a home, you have to dig as deep into building code as you do re-financing laws. The same should apply to projects run in school. When Brett Carrier, a 5th grade teacher in Park Maitland, Florida had her students re-imagine the local restaurant industry, she taught them about logo design, mathematical modelling, persuasive writing, and food science in designing their original food trucks. All skills worked together for their final designs.
Question #2: Who is doing the teaching in the project?
In the real world, projects require learning from experts across a broad range of fields. Recently, after watching ‘Ready, Player One’ on the big screen, I marvelled at how many people contributed in the end credits. I counted over 100 contributors, each with their subject specific expertise, ranging from film directors, producers, and cameramen, to less common titles like ‘first hand grip,’ and ‘foley artist’ (person who creates post production sound effects). The same expertise should be required of school projects. When 7th grade students at Futures Academy in Beijing were tasked with devising environmental innovations, they worked alongside environmental engineers, biologists and anthropologists from NGOs and local universities to gather and document data. Teachers weren’t the sole experts, but the facilitators who helped guide the learning process.
Question #3: Where are students exhibiting their project work? Who are they exhibiting to?
In real world projects, the audience is usually identified before the project begins. If designing a new video game, the audience is regular gamers. If creating a new diet plan, the audience is the health conscious consumer. If creating a map of local heritage sites, the audience is the historically minded traveler. Similarly, in school projects, the audience should not be an afterthought, but the initial motivation that drives students to produce professional work. When 1st grade students in Beijing built a garden in unused space outside their classroom, they decided which crops to grow based on the healthiest choices for their cafeteria. When 6th grade students in Connecticut created documentaries and first person narratives on recent immigrants, they exhibited their work in a community space at the most ethnically diverse corner of town. In each instance, knowing their audience helped focus and guide student project work.
Question #4: How many opportunities do students have to revise their work in the project? Who is critiquing their work?
In real world projects, end products are constantly evolving. The Iphone is in its 11th iteration, with no signs of slowing down. Before Stephen King wrote his best selling novels, he had more than 30 manuscripts rejected by leading publishers. Marty Cagan, an expert on product design claims:
“I tell founders that if you want to have any hope of solving problems and building the right products, you’re going to need to have at least 50 to 100 iteration attempts.”
We should take a similar approach in school. When Charlie, a kindergarten student drew his butterfly for a field study book on local biodiversity, he went through six rounds of revisions before publishing his work. The first three revisions were led by fellow students, with the last three provided by local biodiversity experts. Knowing the page on his butterfly would end up in a local library down the street, Charlie naturally wanted to produce his best work.
Question #5: Do students have an opportunity to input their own voice and choice within the project?
Not far from where I live is an old schoolhouse that was abandoned several years ago. In an attempt to revitalize the building, the government put a call for proposals on what to do with it. Some proposed it be changed into a restaurant that featured local cuisine. Others hoped to convert it into a retirement home for the elderly. Even more saw it as a site to hold community meetings. The winner: a museum detailing the forgotten history of the region. Each part of the museum would feature an untold story from its past; documenting the people, culture, and way of life. In the same way this real world project included input from multiple stakeholders, we should allow our students of to decide what, when and how they complete their project work. When 7th grade Science Teacher Brendan Riley led a design challenge for students to improve local water quality, his students created solutions ranging from eco-friendly shopping bags to toxin free cosmetic lines. In each project student had voice and choice in the product they created.
Designing high-quality project-based experiences is not easy. It requires a mindset of continual reflection and constant iteration. But by using the questions above as a barometer, we will have less projects that end up in the dumpster, and more that serve purpose in the real world.