Project Chaos vs. Project Harmony: 10 tips to Ensure the Latter

It’s 2:30 pm on a Friday afternoon during ‘Project Time.’

Glue guns are running hot and leaking onto the floor from all the power outlets.

The noise in the room is unbearable. Ever been to a Metallica concert? It pails in comparison.

One student chasing a group member around the room. Apparently his partner just stole his precious totem brought from home to glue onto his ‘civilization board.’

I’m in the middle of the room trying to resolve a conflict between two students regarding their Civilization concept. One wants to place it underwater and the other in outer space. Neither one is budging.

Contrast that to a scene from 12 years later…

Three students huddle over a computer, using Google Sketchup to imagine a habitat for the class pet next door.

Two students calmly stare into a screen in the back of the room, jotting notes of environmental conditions most conducive for the horned lizard the three students in front are designing for.

A group of girls in the back cut up different types of fabric. They intend to see how the lizard responds to each type in order to create the most peaceful environment inside the cage.

Opposite to them is a group of hands-on builders. They are assembling various prototypes for the cage and plan to get feedback from the rest of the class in a later presentation.

The teacher (me) is nowhere to be found. The class is running itself.

Project Chaos vs. Project Harmony

The scenes I just described are 100% real. One was a project I led as a first year project teacher, and one as a veteran in my 12th year of project-based learning delivery.

And while it did take years to refine my practice, I don’t think it needs to take 11 years to empower self-directed learning and project harmony. Here are 10 tips to accelerate project harmony.

#1: Have a Goal/ Outcome

There is a giant misconception in project-based learning. The misconception is that the teacher asks students what they are interested in, students respond, and then magically there are 25-30 students all working on self-directed projects throughout the room. In 15 years as a project-based teacher, I still haven’t reached this level of Nirvana. More realistically, you are going to need a goal/ outcome. If you are a media teacher addressing issues of equality, perhaps a film festival is the appropriate outcome. If you are designing future, sustainable cities, logically, a 3-d rendering city model with accompanying presentation might be the appropriate outcome. Whatever it is, PROVIDE STUDENTS WITH DIRECTION. Contrary to popular belief, kids actually desire clear outcomes; and there are plenty of opportunities to still get ‘messy in the middle.’

#2: Have a Process

Having a project process makes projects feel like they are moving forward. It doesn’t matter what the process is, whether its a design cycle, iterative journey, story map, etc., it just matters that you have one. In the case of the second project, we used the ‘design thinking’ process. This allowed us as a teaching team to create clear markers, while also helping students feel like they were making progress.

#3: Establish Clear Roles for Groups

In my first projects, I gave students large tasks without providing or helping them define roles. This left teammates with controlling tendencies frustrated that they were doing all the work, and more relaxed students upset that they were being micro-managed. At the onset of a project, work with students to define exactly what kind of skills are necessary to complete it, and then ideate clear roles within each group to ensure tasks are fulfilled.

#4: Scaffold Tasks and Due Dates

There’s an old phrase, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!’ The same applies to projects. In the first project, when asking students to create an entire blueprint for a new civilization, including code of laws, physical model, economic system, and government plan. During ‘project time,’ it was up to students how they would complete all the tasks. And while this gift of autonomy sounds great in theory, 11 year old kids need a bit more direction. My suggestion is to lead a conversation with your class on the necessary tasks and steps to complete a project. Make these tasks highly visual via a ‘scrum board,’ and use it to check in with group progress. Pretty soon, that project ‘elephant’ will look like a mouse.

#5: Limit the amount of Final ‘Products’

There’s a temptation in projects to create a million different assignments, all with different outputs. Students create a powerpoint, model, dioramma, essay, visual, piece of poetry, video. The list goes on. We think we are offering ‘choice’ to students, but in reality, we are just creating a bunch of busywork. Instead, think about what is most essential to help address the project goals/ main driving question. Rather than create a thousand products, create one or two, and create lots of checkpoints along the way to ensure it makes an impact when the project is complete.

#6: Reflect, reflect, reflect

No project is going to run seamlessly. How could it? For most projects we run, they are in their very first iteration. However, if you have built a culture of constant reflection, you can ensure that they still feel harmonious. After each project block, sit students in a circle and reflect with them. What went well? Did we achieve our goals? What problems are arising? Take an egalitarian approach as a teacher, and sit on the same level. In this way, your projects will feel community owned, and students will want to go WAY FARTHER and FASTER than they previously imagined.

#7: You don’t have to know everything

When I first started running projects, I thought I had to know everything. ‘Mr.Wagner, can I create a graphic novel instead of this class book?’ I emphatically ‘No!’ without hesitation. Not because I didn’t find the student capable, but because I didn’t know how to support him/ her. As a much wiser project facilitator, I know now that’s ok. Before launching a project, determine where your expertise lies, and outsource the other areas of expertise to parents, friends, or experts in the community. Not only will it help create more divergent ideas from students, it will also help you take a step back in project delivery, creating more self-directed learners.

#8: Delegate- stop trying to do it all!

As innovative teachers, we are constantly trying to be superheroes. We are the nurse, psychologist, project manager, lecturer, and neurologist all the same time. I get it, teaching is a demanding profession, but when you try to do everything, it becomes downright neurotic. Let students take up major roles within the project. If designing a magazine, appoint a head editor, illustrator, writer, and marketing manager. Let these students hound their classmates for missing project work. What you will witness is students wanting to work WAY harder for each other than they ever did for you. (Don’t take it personally)

#9: Take it One Step at a Time

When I first started as a project teacher, I shot for the moon! Instead of landing on a star, I landed in the corner of my classroom, crying my way through lunch. It’s ok to steal a project idea, or make a small adaptation to an existing unit for your very first project-based experience. If you are a science teacher teaching about the solar system, have students create models for space stations and plans to explore new galaxies. If you are teaching kids narrative writing, have students create a class book of collected community stories to feature in the library. You don’t have to create little Picassos on the first try! You will get better. I promise.

#10: Exhibit and Share Work Frequently

When I first started running projects, I was terrified of other teachers seeing my student’s work. I wanted it to be polished, professional and mistake free. That’s why I spent countless nights obsessing over meaningless details, and spending late hours the night before exhibition correcting all the work. Meanwhile, my students slept soundly. Why? Because they knew I was going to fix it for them. Instead of waiting until the last minute to exhibit work, have students present regularly and often. Pair them up and have others critique their work. In this way, student work improves naturally, and you get yourself out of the way, ensuring students are getting the kind of feedback THEY need.

Got Ideas of your Own?

Do you have additional tips, strategies and ideas to add to this list? I would love to hear them. Respond in a comment and I will be sure to add them to the list. In the meantime, choose one of the above tips to try and I guarantee your projects will start looking less like image #1 and more like the harmonious equilibrium you see in picture #2!

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Kyle Wagner
School Transformation and Project- Based Learning Coach

I coach school leaders on how to lead change and improve student learning through simple, innovative srategies and teaming structures.

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