Teachers Who Enjoy PBL: Some Additional Qualities

Just before the holidays, Doug Johnson had a brief post about the qualities of teachers that enjoy project-based learning. It is a good list of six items that the has identified, while soliciting for more.

Were I to add to this list I would include one of my more recent catch-phrases, which is the need to “get comfortable with chaos.” This might fit within his first item, “Be comfortable with loss of control over time, the final product, and the correct answers.” Yet, I think there is a subtle distinction in these two points. The loss of control gives way to a certain degree of chaos in every project. Projects kind of take on a life of their own at times.

Before I was a teacher and worked in a small technology consulting company, we used to always be on guard against “project creep,” which could seriously eat into the potential profit generated by a given project. Still, it always happens to a degree and touches off a corresponding degree of chaotic activity, including unintended consequences and unexamined opportunities to learn.

The reality projects invite is that sometimes the target changes in the middle of everything, No matter how well planned a project is there are always unknown variables, like bogeymen, that lurk in the shadows waiting to be found. Some are bigger than others, but all trigger a crisis of some sort.

Additionally, I would add another item, which might fit under his sixth, “Know that any project may not always work the first time.” Projects offer a potential safe place to fail and while still preserving a chance to reap great value from the failure. The same cannot be said about most test-driven pedagogical models. Perhaps a better way to say this is sometimes teachers “Need to sometimes re-frame or redefine success for a given project.” Again, the target can change.

For instance, genuine inquiry projects do not begin with the answers in mind. They need to be discovered, and the process of discovery is generally pretty messy, often involving something getting broken in the process.

Every year I have students engage in an I-Search project, based on Ken Macrorie’s ideas and book. Each time students have begun their search there is always at least one student that decides to investigate a career path that they think they might want to pursue, only to discover during the project that the job was nothing like they thought it was. They come to the realization that they don’t want to do that job at all, now that they know what it is really like. For a few, it has meant a little bit of heartbreak, when their imagined dream job is not all that they imagined.

For an adolescent who has begun to think that he wants to be an attorney, and begins with the goal of discovering what will be required of him, this is a kind of failure. However, it is a kind of success that is cloaked in a failure, of sorts. Nevertheless, that project turns out to be profoundly valuable to that student. Success was redefined and reframed to accommodate the unexpected and unknown.


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