Every year, I ask my pedagogy students about their most memorable learning experience as a learner, whether it was in school or out in the “real world.” Nearly every example involves a creative project. These were the moments when learning stuck and often it was when they fell in love with the subject. But these were also the experiences that taught them collaboration, project management, flexible thinking, and a growth mindset.
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Common Myths About Project-Based Learning
Many of my pedagogy students also describe courses where they never had the opportunity to create anything. The following are some of the myths keeping teachers from designing creative projects.
Myth #1: Creative projects don’t require structure.
Here’s a danger in doing a total free-for-all in PBL. Early on in my PBL journey, I would give students loose guidelines and then say, “Have at it. Make it work.” But they didn’t make it work. They actually didn’t do the work at all. Still, I felt like structure would squash the creative impulse and hamper their collaboration. It felt artificial. Authentic projects didn’t need structure. But then I realized that I always used structures in my creative work. I had systems that I used to facilitate my creativity.
The truth is, structures are vital in creating authentic projects. They provide the necessary creative constraint to push divergent thinking and they help facilitate the actual work of creative work. One of the fascinating things I’ve learned in researching collaboration and innovation is how often organizations, teams, and companies use structures to facilitate creative work. Pixar uses the Brain Trust concept and countless companies have used the Radical Candor structures developed by Kim Scott. If you haven’t checked out her book, I highly recommend it.
Nearly every discipline uses a framework or blueprint for their creative work; whether it’s a writer’s workshop structure, an engineering process, the scientific method, or a design thinking framework. However, these structures should inspire creativity and respect student agency. If you’re interested in embedded structure within creativity, you might want to try design thinking. If you check out the design thinking toolkit at the bottom of this post it includes specific structures within each phase of the design process.
Myth #2: Creative projects work best with certain subjects.
When I taught self-contained (one class for all subjects), I was skeptical about doing PBL in math. Sure, it worked in history and social studies. But math? That was about drill and practice and analysis. But then, I began to discover creativity in the discipline. Students worked collaboratively to create board games and arcade game, which tied to the probability standards. They designed tiny houses using proportional reasoning, volume, and surface area. One of my favorite methods of skill practice was the Scratch game project, which reinforced the x-y axis and helped students learn logic. But I also saw the creativity in the more “traditional” math lessons. Students were being creative when they solved problems.
I love the definition of creativity as “functional novelty.” This encompasses so many aspects of life. And yet, when you the word “creative,” you might think of a painter or a playwright or an author or a photographer or a filmmaker or a chef. In other words, you might think of people who make things. You might think of creativity as art. However, we need a bigger definition of creativity. Yes, creativity involves making things. But it can also mean mashing up ideas in innovative ways. It can mean geeking out on data and finding unique solutions to practical problems. It can mean hacking systems and tweaking things in unusual ways. It can mean exploring ideas and navigating information until you become an expert curator.
It can mean designing systems that empower the creative work of others. It can mean creating change in the world by speaking truth and leading movements and interacting with people. See, each of these creative approaches shape our world in profound ways.
I’ve seen others who view creativity and design solely through the lens of STEM. For them, design thinking is an engineering process. People think about design in connection to coding or robotics or 3D prototyping. But design is bigger than this. When students create blogs, podcasts, and documentaries from a place of empathy, they are engaging in design thinking. The truth is that PBL can work in any subject. I used to teach photojournalism and STEM and although the disciplines were different, students engaged in a similar design process in both classes. The critical thing is to make sure that you have aligned your projects to the standards.
Myth #3: Creative projects work best with advanced students.
This myth is often alluded to rather than spoken outright. A teacher might say, “he’s just not ready for this” or “she should really focus on skill practice first.” Another variation is, “My kids aren’t ready for creative projects. They’re not far enough along.” Too often, schools prevent special education students and English Language Learners from accessing creative projects. However, there are accommodations we can provide for special education students, such as additional task analysis support, spatial-visual project management processes, more think time, and other strategies that content area teachers can develop in partnership with special education teachers. For ELL / ESOL students, it might involve sentence stems, grammar support, multilingual resources, visual scaffolding, and front-loaded vocabulary.
When all students have access to creative projects, everyone benefits because there are more neuro-diversity and linguistic diversity. However, this “all means all” approach can be a challenge in collaborative projects. Too often in group projects, one member works independently while other members are dependent on the single member, merely filling in the gaps when asked to help. This is why it’s critical to incorporate interdependency. When students work interdependently, each member is adding value to the group project. Interdependence begins with trust, with each member depending on other members to complete their tasks. It can feel risky and even vulnerable, which is why it can help to establish norms or engage in team-building. This is also why, as an eighth-grade teacher, I often had teams work for an entire quarter on different projects before changing up the grouping.
Once you’ve developed trust, you can incorporate project tasks that build up interdependence. Take, for example, this brainstorming strategy used in the LAUNCH design thinking framework. Students actually benefit from listening to one another depending on each other for new ideas. Even the “low” student has something valuable to add to the group.
Or consider the following structure for inquiry and research within a PBL Unit:
- Students generate questions independently. They might need sample questions or sentence stems, but they can all create questions.
- Once they have their questions, they can send them to a Google Document or submit them on a Google Form. Or if you want to go old school, students can have chart paper and smelly markers. Seriously, Mr. Sketch markers are the best. I don’t care about being Google Certified or Apple Certified but if Mr. Sketch ever does a certification, I might just do it.
- Students analyze the questions to see if they are actually research questions. Each member has a role. Member #1 answers, “Is this question fact-based?” Member #2 answers “Is this question on-topic?” Member #3 answers “Is this question specific?” Member #4 then focuses on quality control.
- Members #1-3 can put a star by each question that fits their criteria. So, member #1 looks at each question and puts a star by questions that are fact-based. Meanwhile, member #4 is available to help and observe. Then member #4 double-checks all the questions with three stars and circles or highlights it if it’s an actual research question.
Note that a struggling student might still be able to do the job of member #1 or 2 while a more advanced student can do #3. Meanwhile, the group member who typically dominates and achieves at a top level learns to trust other members and wait and observe. However, they can still provide expertise as the quality control person who has the final say.
Myth #4: There’s no time for it.
When I first piloted creative projects, I started with culminating projects. I believed that creative projects should happen after students had mastered basic skills. Our projects always felt rushed. However, as I shifted toward a PBL approach, I realized that it wasn’t about adding something new to the plate. It was about reorganizing my plate.
The traditional approach to teaching focuses on isolating specific skills and teaching them systematically to students. However, with PBL, we can have students learn a concept while also practicing a skill. They can work on multiple, interconnected standards at the same time instead of going sequentially through each standard. When this happens, students move more slowly through the standards rather than going through the stop-and-go traditional methods.
One of the key differences between a culminating project and a PBL unit is that students should be learning through a project rather than learning first and then doing completing the project afterward.
A quick distinction here. Project-based learning is a framework for learning. It’s a pedagogical model (though it’s not a learning theory). By contrast, design thinking is a framework for creative work. Students use it to leverage the creative process through empathy and iterations. Students will often use design thinking as a process within a PBL classroom. Teachers will often use the key elements of PBL (voice and choice, research, authentic audience) but structure a unit around the design thinking process.
Myth #5: “I’m not very creative.”
I’ve seen teachers who say, “I would love to do creative projects. But I’m not really much of a creative teacher.” However, every teacher is creative. It’s just that we often have different approaches to creativity.
Here’s where collaboration makes a huge difference. When teachers team together to design and implement creative projects, they are able to tap into one another’s strengths in a way that wouldn’t be possible on their own.
Myth #6: Creative projects have to be high-tech.
Creative projects don’t necessarily require fancy equipment and high-tech gadgets. For example, kids can prototype on a 3D printer. However, sometimes the best technology to develop iterative thinking is actually duct tape and cardboard. Sometimes hands-on learning really should involve our own two hands.
Authentic PBL is human-centered rather than tech-centered. A student might create a digital work or a high-tech product. However, they might design an event or a system or a service. We used design thinking for STEM projects and documentaries but also for our service projects and murals. In many cases, students toggle back and forth between low-tech and high-tech, using sticky notes for ideation but choosing a tech-based platform for project management. This idea is at the heart of vintage innovation:
Myth #7: PBL is Too Hard to Assess
When I first began in my project-based learning journey, I graded student projects on creativity. Unfortunately, I found the category to be too subjective. How do you possibly rate student creativity? What criteria do you use? How can you possibly quantify something that seems like a personal preference? I soon ran into another issue. When I told students, “I’m grading you on your creativity,” they actually became more risk-averse. Creativity requires risk-taking and flexible thinking but when students are fixated on an external grade, they focus on compliance. Often, they slip into perfectionism.
And yet, we value what we assess. When we don’t assess something, it’s easy to push that idea to the side. Case in point: schools often talk about the role of life-long learning but when they focus their assessments on standardized tests, the school culture tends to emphasize student achievement instead.
So, how do we bridge this gap? On the one hand, assessing creativity can backfire. On the other hand, if we don’t assess it, we often neglect it. There are actually a few ways to assess creativity while also reducing risk-aversion:
- Assess creative thinking as a process. In other words, break down down creativity into specific ideas, like problem-solving, risk-taking, ideation, research and development, etc.
- Assess the product as a formative process. Teach students that revision is normal by embedding testing/revision into the design process.
- Encourage students to engage in self-assessment and peer assessment. This helps boost metacognition awhile increasing student agency and autonomy.
- Focus on growth and celebration.
Project-based learning actually provides an authentic context for student-centered assessment. Here, they can engage in deeper, meaningful self-assessment and peer assessment.
Curious About Project-Based Learning?
Are you thinking about getting started with project-based learning? If so, you might want to check out the PBL toolkit. It includes resources, a free eBook, and a sample project.
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