Freedom, Fearlessness, and the Mechanics of PBL
“If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you’ll never do anything.” - David Foster Wallace
First thing every morning of the week, I teach a group of students that are in my middle school’s gifted program. These 8th graders are a joy. They challenge me and keep me sharp; they can hold intense and meaningful discussions with one another. They made my first-year classroom a wonderful place to be each and every day. This group of students is full of varying personalities with eclectic interests that they pursue with zeal, ranging from military hardware to old school R&B. They are also - nearly universally - afraid of being “wrong.”
When I first discovered this, it was mind-boggling. Any time I gave an open-ended assignment, I was met with a tidal wave of frantic questions and even anger. For example, there were many mornings that my Bell Work (Do Now, Starter, Bell Ringer...) assignment would be a Free Write for 15 minutes. Sometimes there would be a prompt, but more often it would be an open invitation to put pencil to paper for 10-15 minutes. They wigged. “How long does it have to be? What do we write about? Are you serious?” Eventually, they learned that I wasn’t trying to trap them and that they really could write about whatever they wanted and however they wanted during that time. Due to this unstructured writing time, I saw students write several songs, many different types of poetry, short stories, and scathing rants on various injustices of the adolescent experience; I also saw students who remained paralyzed by not having set boundaries, criteria, and points-for-things. This was the catalyst for my foray into Project/Passion/Performance Based Learning (PBL).
From then on, I wanted to help my students understand that learning was so much more than being “right.” In fact, it is typically quite the opposite. I wanted to help them understand that the most learning takes place when we are wrong, when we can handle being wrong, and we try to find out the right answer. When I began our grade level’s PBL pilot, I was met with major resistance from a large number of the students who felt that this was too abstract and therefore too difficult. They were given a rubric, a questionnaire to help get them to their topic, and then time, resources, and guidance to create a project, answer a question, or solve a problem that they had come up with all on their own. The results were powerful and I do believe that many students finally got a small taste of what real learning feels and looks like.
Due to this experience, I began reflecting on the rest of the instruction that my students were receiving. We are highly recommended to teach the 3.5 method of writing, with graphic organizers to pre-write, simply due to the fact that it is tradition and it is what is popular with Pearson at this particular time. However, writing doesn’t actually look like this. I don’t know any writer that whips out a graphic organizer when they begin a new project. The writers I know are constantly scribbling jumbles, phrases, doodles, quotes, or whatever it is that has struck them and inspired them to consider it further by writing about it. I realized I wasn’t teaching my students to write; I was teaching them to follow directions just like they have always been taught.
Five paragraphs with a thesis in the introduction, a paragraph for each of your three main ideas, and a strong conclusion.
I realized then that our obsession with the uniformity of the product has caused a deep corruption of the very personal process. Let’s compare learning to fixing a car - you don’t go into the shop and make certain that the mechanic followed every step in a manual in the precise order; you judge success by whether or not your car is working - THE FINISHED PRODUCT. There are key components which MUST be in place (very particular parts placed in a very particular way), but if the mechanic has to do those while standing on her head or in a wonky, true-to-her order, as long as the finished product is steller, who are we to dictate every step of her process? More artistic pursuits prove this even further; who would tell Julia Child that she had better follow pre-formulated recipes step-by-step with no deviation or she would be doing it WRONG? So how did we get to this place where learning and writing and reading are concerned?
The big argument against more open-ended learning pursuits is making sure that students are engaged and productive, and of course how it will impact their test scores. But here is the beautiful thing about PBL and more authentic learning processes: even if time is wasted, their project bombs or never gets off the ground, reflection at the end is required and it is KEY. Learning is STILL taking place, even if the project fails (and maybe even more so). Learning is relevant and real, because it is more than an assigned set of points - it is the reality of NOT doing something well or thoroughly and being met with real and relevant consequences, such as realizing you don’t know something and figuring out a way to do it better next time.