Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Six Principles for Project-Based Learning

In my current Renaissance Literature course, we have turned a corner and begun a new phase. While we will continue reading Renaissance literature, we will do so for the express purpose of producing an ebook which we will publish by semester's end.

We've moved to a new classroom, a computer lab, signally formally a shift from lecture-and-discussion to management-and-production.

I want to orient my students for what is to come, because project-based learning is just not the same animal as traditional, classroom-based instruction. Here are six principles for succeeding at this project-based approach to learning:

  1. Keep the End in View
  2. Be Flexible
  3. Take Initiative
  4. Work Together
  5. Own It
  6. Find the Stakes and Stakeholders
1. Keep the End in View
The "end" can mean both the stopping point as well as the goal. Both are important. The first gives us a countdown, a time-based limit to the project. Timelines and deadlines give us reasons to focus, organize, and produce. When the semester ends, so does the project, whether or not the project is completed and released.

My students need to be a bit sobered by the reality that past generations have not always succeeded. Twice I have had to pull the plug on a student ebook project because too much was incomplete or the quality was inadequate. I am putting my name on this book, too, and I won't humor a student project that won't really contribute to anything or which would be an embarrassment.

The more important meaning of keeping the "end" in mind is staying focused on our project's goal. What is this project's goal?  Well, the goal is not to get through the semester with a decent grade, nor proving that you've learned something to your teacher. Those will be incidental results to the real goal. The primary goal is to create and publish an ebook addressing genuine needs by way of the content specific to this class. The secondary goal is to showcase students' intellectual abilities and pragmatic skills. Doing this has got to matter to others beyond our classroom; and doing it needs to matter to its participants.

2. Be Flexible
Projects are far less clearly organized than are syllabi. Students have to be willing to shift gears as new needs arise, or problems are to be solved. This also means having a tolerance for a low level of chaos. I say a low level, because if our end goals are clear, and the project parameters are in place, then the strategy is never changing, just the tactics. We cannot stay married to tactics, not when working in unfamiliar territory -- and we will be, since the worlds of student-produced books and the topics of digital culture are a wilderness in which we are building.

A special kind of inflexibility about which I am concerned is the strong expectation by students that this class will, like most of their classes, be one in which everything is assigned; all that needs to be done is laid out beforehand, a convenient checklist in their busy schedules. I know, it will be frustrating when the teacher says "Maybe we need a separate chapter on ____" or if we decide that something we have finished needs to be unstitched and redone. But I also think students will enjoy the fact that they can be flexible about what they do individually and as a group. And that begins by being willing to take initiative.

3. Take Initiative
My faith tradition holds that we should not be commanded in all things, but that we should be anxiously engaged in good causes (D&C 58:27). If my students wait to be told exactly what to do and when to do it, they are taking a passive approach to the project very contrary to the agency-centered model this scripture enjoins. That doesn't mean that we won't have structure or deadlines. But what it does mean is that we must be thinking less in terms of "What is due this class period / this week?" and more in terms of "Are we organizing ourselves to do what is necessary?" and "What do we need to do most/next for the project to succeed?" Obviously, taking initiative in this way requires keeping the end in view.

Allowing for student initiative means I must give students the latitude for exercising their agency. And so I reduce the amount of required reading and invite them to seek out what they need to read and research on their own, or what they need to do in practical terms to carry off the project.

However, I have found many still want the Mosaic law of academic life, with the outward ordinances of points and assignment deadlines to confirm grade salvation. Well, the "elect" in my classroom are those who elect themselves as agents, take initiative, and work collaboratively for the common goal.

4. Work Together
Project-based learning like this gives no one the luxury of being an isolated learner, quietly doing his/her work and turning it in for a grade. Nope. Projects like this are a collaboration, requiring coordination and a willingness to divide labor and delegate. It does not mean that two or three people end up doing all the work and others stay passively in the wings. No. Everyone has a task, because everyone has a stake. If you fail, you also fail the group that is counting on you. If you succeed, you do something greater than you could ever do all alone.

Like members of one body, we do different things but as part of a combined effort. I will provide leadership, but I also expect the students to figure out how and when to work with each other to get done what needs to get done. I give my students class time to work collaboratively, and I expect them to use that time to connect their individual efforts with the group's efforts.

Working together with the end in view means adopting roles, actively problem solving, and taking initiative to make sure what needs to happen happens. And while I will provide structure and guidance, it should be the students that grasp the goals and self-organize to accomplish the short- and long-term objectives.

5. Own It
My students must shift from thinking what do I have to do for this class? and arrive at thinking more like This project allows me to explore and communicate something I care about or I get to be part of something that really matters both to me and to other people. 

I know very well that such personalized motivation doesn't come about because I wish it upon my students. This is why I invite them to approach the content of the project in terms of something that already matters to them -- to find a spark of passion or interest that can be the impetus for work that the student cares about. And this is why I invite them to consider audiences that matter; contemporary issues that matter; and literary texts that matter, and to work toward the intersection of things that are consequential within the writing they will do.

I will prompt, invite, and suggest, but my students will feel that projects like this are projects in the worst connotation of that term, some kind of burden to be shuffled off as soon as possible, unless and until they work on this personal motivation.

Project-based learning can end up being a platform for personal discovery, expression, and influence. And it is more likely to be seen in this light if students can find out why others might care.

6. Find the Stakes and Stakeholders
I require my students to circulate their writing ideas early in order to get social proof that their ideas matter. I have seen time and time again that when my students see that others value their ideas, they suddenly acquire a confidence and motivation to realize the potential value of their ideas in development.

I also require my students to research who cares about the topics and texts we are discussing. This is much more than a marketing survey for a prospective book (which will be given away, not sold, in any case). When students find the people for whom their topics matter, they will find out how people are discussing topics and will be able to adjust their writing approaches accordingly. They will also find communities and organizations, events and resources, that will inform their research and their developing research and writing.

Most academic work makes no attempt to connect to the "real world." But in this project-based approach to learning, we won't go to the trouble to create something that has no viable value proposition to real people with real investment in the stakes of our topics. This kind of socially-based research may in fact be more critical than traditional scholarly research (though they can of course work together)

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I am providing parameters for the content and for the production schedule, and it will be up to my students to stay within those parameters to achieve the quality and timeliness necessary for the project to be completed and have its impact.

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