Projects are tricky things. If you don’t have enough organized structure, students are unlikely to accomplish anything. Conversely, if you’re too tied to a limited outcome, you risk silencing student voice, choice, and creativity. Organized structure is necessary. It provides students with manageable deadlines, and a pathway toward achievement. However, in project-based curriculum design it is easy to over structure an outcome in ways that interfere with authentic production and learning. In this post, we examine our own need to let go of predetermined outcomes in order to facilitate real learning.
This year, the Civic Action Project had a long and complex structure, with a fairly restrictive project outcome. Students were asked to identify and research a local community need, initiate a series of civic actions in order to address that need, and to film themselves while doing this. The “project outcome” was to create a video documentary that showed the process of taking civic action. For example, one group of young women investigated the low numbers of female students in tech-based programs on campus, and organized a series of events to motivate girls in middle and high school to pursue STEM courses. Their documentary exemplifies the “outcome” we had imagined for our students when we designed the project.
And why this outcome? Partly, it was to conform to a pre-existing project: the Constitutional Rights Foundation’s Civic Action Project. Partly, it was to create a standard level of expectation consistent with previous projects we have created ourselves.
As instructors, we were set. The Government and ELA strand outcomes were being met through the accomplishment of research and writing tasks the students performed along the way. The production requirements would move the students through a series of assessments that prepared them to create the video, and we had grouped the students well. Or so we thought.
What Went Wrong?
As is always true in PBL, some groups thrive immediately and others struggle. This is the story of a group who appeared to be incapable of making headway. In retrospect, the fault lies in our misconceptions about student behaviors, rather than in the behaviors themselves.
Our school is diverse–if diversity is having essentially two different populations. About 64% of our student body is immigrant, largely from El Salvador or Guatemala. Of these students, most have been in our district since K-3. The rest of the school is primarily middle/upper-middle class and white. It is a school community that prides itself on its diversity. So, when we took a group of 5 talented and engaged young women and assigned them the broad subject “Immigration,” it never occurred to us that it would take them nearly a month to figure out how to have a conversation with each other.
Obviously, it should have. Our students have been taught to be tolerant. They have been taught to be respectful. They have been taught to be kind and generous. And they are. However, we found very quickly that our students had internalized all that tolerance and politeness as silence. They have not been taught how to carry on a conversation with each other about race or immigration. They have not been taught how to ask about or tell the stories of immigration they see around them. So day after day, we watched two thoughtful and respectful young white women not know how to ask questions about immigration; and we watched 3 equally thoughtful and respectful immigrants not know how to tell their stories aloud. Asking questions about immigration was rude; telling your own story was potentially dangerous.
Letting It Go
During each class, they tried to organize themselves around an idea–and by the end of the period, they unravelled any progress they made. Regardless of how we structured assignments, they were seemingly incapable of controlling that behavior; but they learned to talk about it. Ironically, they found it quite easy to reflect, as a group, on how difficult they found it to communicate. Eventually, they were able to identify that the inability to communicate about immigration was the issue they wanted to take action against. They achieved an impressive level of meta-congintion around the subtle ways in which they had been taught to silence themselves. And this became the subject of their video. They made an artistic decision that showing our community talking about diversity and immigration was taking action. They chose to model a behavior as a means to changing it.
Their video does not meet the outcomes that we had set for this project. But is the learning that occurred any less important? These students did not meet a single deadline we set for them. But, honestly, it took us far too long to recognize that, while we were carefully tracking the work they were not doing, we were missing the exceptional and transformative work they were accomplishing.