Charles Eames (the designer pictured above who developed some of the most iconic and beloved furniture designs for Herman Miller) once remarked that "I have never been forced to accept compromises, but I have willingly accepted constraints". In addition, on a separate occasion, Eames commented that "one of the few effective keys to the design problem [is] the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible [and their] willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints".
When I think about Project Based Learning (PBL) and its implementation within classrooms ranging from Kindergarten through Post-Secondary, my mind often comes back to this wisdom from Charles Eames. One of the central tenets of "Gold-Standard" PBL (as defined by the Buck Institute for Education) is "Student Voice and Choice" which is defined as students having input and control over various aspects of the project they are engaged in. This could range from students deciding on the protocols they will utilize to investigate the question at hand, to how they will demonstrate what they have learned, to what question(s) they investigate in the first place.
The peril with this element of PBL though is the fact that it is easy to fall into the trap that more student "voice" and "choice" must be better than less - in essence that students having no (or at least less) constraints must be good. It has to be better to give students absolute say and control over what their final products, performances, etc will be. It has to be better to let students have complete freedom over how they will conduct the investigation into the driving question related to their inquiry. Right? In my opinion, I think that (like in most real-life situations within schools and classrooms) it depends upon the students and their readiness to own more voice and choice within the process. Depending upon this readiness, it might be necessary to either impose more or less constraints on students within a project.
Recently, I came across a helpful analogy related to this within the book The Whole Brain Child, by Dr. Dan Siegel. Within the book, Siegel describes mental health as a "river of well being" where you are "more or less in flow" moving down the middle of the river and "[y]ou can be flexible and adjust when situations change". In essence, "[y]ou’re stable and at peace". Things tend to get out of whack when your canoe veers too close to one of two banks. The first is chaos where everything feels out of control. "Instead of floating in the peaceful river, you are caught up in the pull of the tumultuous rapids, and confusion and turmoil rule the day." The other bank is rigidity, the opposite of chaos. Upon this bank, control is imposed on everything and everyone around you and "you become completely unwilling to adapt, compromise, or negotiate".
Within our classrooms and schools when utilizing PBL, we need to find the appropriate place on the river for each of our students. Some of our students are ready to face the raging waters close to the shores of chaos (obviously with a watchful eye and guide) where there are less constraints while others need to be closer to the bank of rigidity until they are able to safely go out into the middle of the water. To take this analogy to its logical conclusion, the educator is essentially the "river guide" deciding where and when students are able to traverse different sections of the water.
So what constraints can educators work with when designing project-based units for their students? While there is no end to the possibilities, there are three main constraints that educators can work with to ensure that their students don't drift too close to the shores of chaos or rigidity.
Often it is easy to think that giving students more or additional time will generate better and deeper projects and understanding of content. While this may be true at times, giving students an appropriately short and intense window to complete their work in generally creates more focussed and intense work. For example, within our middle school IChallengeUth Program, educators guide students through investigating and proposing a solution to a real-life business issue or opportunity over the course of a week. While this may seem daunting, the partnering businesses have actually implemented many of the solutions that students have developed.
We believe that students learning how to conduct their own research, sift through information, and discern what is pertinent and what isn't is an essential skill and will only be more important in the future. With that being said, there are moments within the classroom where time is such a precious commodity that constraining how, where, and with whom students are conducting their investigations is necessary. In addition, if students have not had prior experience conducting their own authentic research, scaffolding them through this process is a necessity in order to ensure that the process does not devolve into chaos.
The one area of PBL that it is often most tempting to not have any constraints around is how students will demonstrate what they learned or their final, public product. While it sounds great in theory to not constrain what students will need to produce at the end of a PBL unit, without constraints students often spend excess time debating and going in circles around what they will create. While some of this conversation and debate is productive for students to have, at a certain point it begins to take away from the real learning and intentions that were driving the unit in the first place. Within our programming and work with educators, we have played with extremely tight constraints around products including "you need to present your final idea/concept on 5 large post-it notes" and "you will have 5 minutes to present your idea to an authentic audience". With that being said, we have always allowed room for educators and students to push outside of the boundaries of these constraints if they have a compelling reason. By doing this, the focus becomes a debate as to why they need to work outside of the constraints to portray their understanding or idea, and not about why they need to do something just because they want to.
Walking the Walk: Providing the Type of Support and Instruction for Educators that We Would Like to See in their Classrooms
Back in 2013, the Center for Public Education released a report entitled "Teaching the Teachers: Effective Professional Development in an Era of High Stakes Accountability". Of the findings within the report, it was stated that "[a]vailability of [professional development] alone is not an issue. In fact, in a recent study, researchers found that while 90 percent of teachers reported participating in professional development, most of those teachers also reported that it was totally useless (Darling-Hammond et al, 2009)" This is mostly due to the fact that many professional development workshops or programs for educators use the "spray and pray" (provide lots and lots of information and hope it sinks in), "sit and get" (listen to the expert and absorb their mastery), or "drive by" (one-time offerings) models for helping them develop new and often complex skills. Research has shown that professional development programs that engage educators in support and/or programming that averages 49 hours in length over six months to one year can increase student achievement (Yoon, Duncan, Lee, Scarloss, and Shapley, 2007), not the types of models listed previously.
More importantly though, the Common Core State Standards (which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia) emphasize and will ultimately test for students being able to critically think and problem solve as opposed to being able to do low-level recall or procedural routines. As a result, the Center for Public Education report advocates, "teachers have to learn new ways to teach, ways to teach they likely never experienced themselves and that they rarely see their colleagues engage in. Creating this type of teacher development is one of the biggest challenges school districts face today".
So What Could Effective Educator PD Look Like?
Within futurePREP'd. we work with educators to help them experience and utilize three interrelated concepts: (1) Project Based Learning, (2) Design Thinking (what we often refer to as the Creative Sequence), and 21st century skills such as flexibility and adaptability and technology literacy (what we refer to as the Skills4Success). We do this by helping them uncover the basics behind each of these concepts, guiding them through solving a real-life issue for a local organization or business, having them work in a summer program in which they guide actual students that are similar to the students that they normally teach through the process of solving a real-life issue for a local organization or business (click here to see some of the final presentations from the High School program), and (finally) having then design and implement an experience for their own classrooms based upon what they learned. Overall, this entire process ranges from 60 hours for K - 5th grade educators to 120 hours for High School educators spread across six months.
Supporting Deeper Levels of Educator Learning
We have had some great success with this basic model of "gradual release of responsibility" in which educators practice and eventually take full responsibility for the instruction and practices that we would like them to use. Yet, maybe as a result of this success, another issue (albeit a good one) has cropped up: We have many enthusiastic and dedicated educators that have worked with us that want to continually deepen their practice around Project-Based Learning, Design Thinking, and 21st century skills.
As a result, this begs the question, how do we continue to nurture this passion and support these educators on their journey?
In order to address this question, this year we have decided to "walk the walk" with educators that are returning to us for a second year by modeling the type of support and instruction that we would like to see them provide for their students within their classrooms. As opposed to coming in with a set agenda for how our time with the educators will be spent (which, in all honesty, is something that we have done to varying degrees in the past) we have decided to let the actual goals, needs, current level of practice, and aspirations of the educators we are working with guide what we will do together. We are in the midst of kicking this process off with the educators this year and here is how we have structured it:
(Step 1) Bringing in Work that they have Tried in their Classrooms
For the first session with the returning educators, we asked them to bring examples of things that they tried within their classrooms. This included lesson plans, student work/products, pictures from the classroom, etc. We also asked the educators to bring these things in a "physical" format so that others could look at and interact with them.
(Step 2) Reflection on What they have Tried
In an open area, we had the educators post the work that they brought and do a variation of a SWOT analysis: (1) Strengths (What things went well? What did you and the students like?), (2) Weaknesses (What didn't go as expected? What could be improved?), (3) Opportunities (Are there any exciting opportunities that you could take advantage of?), and (4) Barriers (What are the things that are getting in the way?
(Step 3) Sharing of Work and SWOB Analysis and Looking for Areas of Focus
After everyone had their work posted and their SWOB analysis done, we went around as a group and heard about what each person had tried during the year and what they thought the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and barriers were related to their current practice. As opposed to passively listening to each person's description though, we had those that were not presenting listen for areas of interest that might serve as a focus for our work together throughout the rest of the year and the summer and jot each one down on a separate, large post-it note. This could be a weakness that someone mentioned that one found interesting, an opportunity that could be explored, or a barrier that needs to be addressed.
(Step 4) Sharing of Areas of Focus and Grouping
Once each educator had a chance to share the work that they had brought and their SWOB analysis, they had a moment or two to jot down any additional ideas that they had for areas of focus for the work ahead and then we shared out what areas of focus were identified. As ideas were shared, post-it notes were stuck to the wall and similar ideas and concepts were grouped around each other. After all of the post-it notes had been shared, a discussion was held around the meaning of the various groups and what the work ahead might look like based upon the discussion.
(Step 5) Design the Journey Ahead Based Upon the Information that was Uncovered
Now we are in the midst of the exciting (and difficult) portion of the process - designing the journey ahead for the returning educators. So far we have conducted this session with a group of returning elementary and middle school educators and in the next week we will be conducting it with another middle school group and a group of returning high school educators. Themes that have emerged fro the two groups that we have worked with include the desire to create a local network to gain access to authentic audiences and businesses for classrooms and helping educators (especially those that are on the same teaching team) who are not familiar with practices such as Project Based Learning and Design Thinking gain an appreciation and initial understanding for them.
While it definitely would have been easier to assume what the next level of work for these returning educators is and designed our supports and programming for them according to those assumptions, what we will be doing will ultimately be more authentic, more likely to address the actual needs and current level of understanding of the participating educators, and (as a result) more likely to affect the educators' practice. In the end, if we are not willing to do this for the educators that we work with, how can we expect them to do it with their own students?
In an interview posted recently at Big Think, Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, describes what he sees as the formula for creating winning teams. In this interview, he describes how Google held the hypothesis that in order to create great, productive teams you need to carefully curate who is a part of each team (i.e. - make sure that you have enough extroverts, balance personality types, etc.) The only problem was, after looking at data they were collecting on team effectiveness, they essentially found no correlation between who was on the team and how the team performed.
After this surprising revelation, Google began looking at how teams interacted instead and found that effective teams had two norms that they held sacred: (1) conversational turn taking (Does everyone at the table have a chance to speak up?) and (2) high social-sensitivity (Can I pick up on what you are thinking and feeling through non-verbal cues?) Duhigg goes on to explain that the goal of these norms is to create "psychological safety", the idea that even if I am not the foremost expert on something or may not have my ideas fully formed yet, it is safe (and encouraged) for me to share with the group.
In his New York Times Magazine article that expounds on this idea, Guhigg states that “[n]o one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home, but to be fully present at work, to feel ‘psychologically safe,’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations.” This concept of others understanding who we truly are and accepting of our contributions is supported by other research on building effective teams. According to Gratton and Erickson (2007), major initiatives require “complex teams” made up of diverse individuals from across the organization. The only problem is that diverse teams are also extremely hard to manage and to help stay productive. Gratton and Ericsson recommend that in order to combat this a "strong sense of community” should be cultivated through things such as “sponsoring events and activities that bring people together and help them get to know one another”.
So, How Does this Translate to Education?
If we are to create "psychological safety" within our systems, schools, and classrooms, then we need to make room for individuals to share their personality and inner life with others in a meaningful way. This may be self-evident, but in the current environment of high-stakes assessments and ever escalating curriculum demands this often seems like it is the last thing on one's mind.
So what could this look like within the education field?
Within the experiences that we provide for educators within futurePREP'd, we create psychological safety for participants and model how this could be done within their classrooms by having them purposefully experience a couple of simple (yet powerful) tools and protocols:
Within their research and work around The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner found that organizations that have shared values (employees know their own values, those of the organization, and how they overlap) foster strong feelings of personal effectiveness, caring and teamwork. We have found the same in our work with educators and students.
Within our work with educators we have them identify their own values through a set of "values cards" in which they select the top three that define who they are. They then talk with other educators about which three they chose and why they did not select others. This simple act of having individuals share who they are at their "core" helps engender trust and understanding within the group at a rapid pace. In addition, educators that have utilized this tool with students within their own classrooms have found similar results.
Personal Haikus and 6-Word Memoirs
Whenever we bring together a new group of educators, we like to have them share something personal about themselves with the group right from the get-go. This typically involves a crazy-tight constraint such as writing a Haiku about the craziest moment in their life or a six word memoir (Smith Magazine has a great site devoted to six word memoirs). We find that the imposed constraints of the task actually produce more creativity from individuals and help elicit memorable descriptions of who people are.
There are other protocols and tools that we use with educators and students including having individuals identify which of the 10 Faces of Innovation they believe they are most like and creating something (i.e. - a painting, poem, sculpture, etc.) that represents that and identifying and sharing what part of the Design Thinking Process they most identify with. Overall, we find this process of coming to a common understanding of who we each are to be essential to the work that we do.
How about you? What tools and techniques have you utilized to produce a "strong sense of community" and "psychological safety" within your team or classroom?
About Jason Pasatta
I am passionate about learning, design, and the potential that we all possess. Currently I am the Director of Innovation Services for the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District in West Michigan, where I the lead the development of new and innovative educational programs, supports, and systems.