Note: This post is an extended reflection from the EdTech Team’s Teacher Leader Certification Program. I am participating in the initial cohort.
The project based learning unit only affirms my idea that projects offer many of ideal learning opportunities that teachers hope students create. Through projects, there is an economy of learning that goes on that is hard to match in a more discrete, linear unit-based approach. When constructed well, projects afford students a broad array of knowledge and learning. They are deep into doing something. When that something matters to them those affordances only grow.
Projects amplify the notion that learning is complex, messy, and often does not follow a sequential pattern.
Consequently, this complex messiness does not easily fit in an environment obsessed with standardization and test metrics. It can work but by no means is hand-in-glove. Of course, being messy, complex, and not sequential in nature is also what makes them so problematic. They violate traditional norms of schooling that continue to generate a lot of inertia.
Of course, it is not at all that black and white.Clever teachers have been devising creative projects as a context for deep, dynamic learning for years. So projects have been around nearly forever and, in this way, project based learning has a rich tradition all its own, existing long before the trendy label.
However, pairing student agency with project based learning in this unit cleverly connected two elements that go a long way toward creating an environment where genuine learning can happen. Yet, the very nature of that environment belies efforts toward standardization and the like.
For the student to truly possess freedom, they must have the opportunity to explore, experiment, fail, and repeat.
Too often that opportunity is cut short in an environment that values test scores and easy accountability over other indicators of learning. Outcomes that can be gleaned from projects tends to be more qualitative and often considered, sadly, too soft in comparison to the normed, standardization of International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement efforts. Again, the two are not premade for a good fit.
Yet, if teachers are to create environments for students to be faced with exercising their own agency, there are few opportunities that can deliver so fully as project based learning or one of its many derivatives.
I hope that in a year’s time student agency grows considerably. Everyone learns by doing and it is in the doing that student agency can be released and exercised. By creating environments that encourage choice, narration of the work, and reflection, student agency can be strengthened considerably.
In line with this thinking, I especially like the idea of providing a loose collection of options that can demonstrate learning and allow students to choose which ones would best suit them, even opening the possibility for something altogether original. This would provide some structural supports without limiting outlying possibilities.
The options might be a collection of learning tasks connected to a broader concept that might involve a project or larger product. Or maybe they are just a series of tasks that students can demonstrate their learning in a portfolio-like way. These tasks would be best if they were preparatory and included a spectrum of difficulty. In this way, they could build or lead to a project or larger product if the student desired. I also really like the idea of ranking learning tasks in terms of difficulty, especially with students crowdsourcing the rankings.
A lot of my thinking on these topics has been deeply informed by DS106. To me, it remains a shining example of how to construct a framework that does many of these things so well. From using things like the methodology to The Daily Create, Assignment Bank, and star difficulty rankings for individual assignments they have managed to build something where choice and agency is baked into the nature of the course.
I would love to implement a system that worked in a similar fashion, especially the star system, with the possibility of it facilitating a better, more organic self-directed project design. There are so many smaller tasks that are critical to research, project management, or engaging in deeper learning that give students a genuine reason to feel pride in what they have achieved. This goes for the work that I do with both students and teachers.
It is ambitious stuff.