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.
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.