1. Hi Phil,
    Your thinking in that post seems pretty thorough to me! As an art teacher, project based learning sums up the way my classroom operates most of the time. One thing I’d like to elaborate on is that the process is so much more important than the final product. Even when the final product is an amazing achievement. it’s vital that students realize what they learned along the way through some closure, such as a reflective exercise, at the end. I like all your steps along the way – very important to slow it down so the students can experience the process as they go.

    I have a question for you. What about creativity and imagination? 21st century teaching should have a good dose of both. How do those two elements fit into your project based learning model? (I’m not being critical, just curious!!)

  2. Hi Erin,

    I read your response on my itouch while doing dishes and watching my 3 year old daughter make herself a new toy out of paper, paint, glue and popsicle sticks and couldn’t help feeling like I was watching creativity in it’s most elemental form. Then I started wondering about the word ‘creativity’ and how it has become a real 21st century skills buzzword. In particular I was wondering whether the kind of ‘creativity’ you teach in your art class is the same as the ‘creativity’ that the Partnership for 21st Century Skills is looking for? Or are there subtle differences?

    Watching my daughter I realised that creativity is messy and non-linear. In my technology classroom I present my students with very rigid framework in order to guide them during the process of designing and creating a product of some sort. I have to be careful about letting this process get messy. In my classroom the place for creativity is during the Design process. In an ideal world (which I am still working towards) my students would feel empowered to come up with 2 or 3 well fleshed out ideas for things they could make that would meet the design specifications for the project. This is where they can let their imagination run wild. The next step is to evaluate each design against the design specifications and pick the one that they think is best. The reality is that my students really want to just come up with one design and usually grudgingly think up a second one, but it usually doesn’t stand a chance. As I type this I’m thinking I need to talk to our art teacher about how he gets his students to think creatively. Do you have any ideas?

    I don’t know much about teaching art, but I wonder how you balance the need to allow freedom and creativity with the reality that at the end of the day your students need to produce something that meets certain assessment criteria?

    One more thought. I recently listened to Thomas Friedman at the Flat Classroom Conference in Qatar and when a student asked him which web 2.0 tools he used he said that he actively avoided them as they split his attention and “Continuous partial attention is lethal to creativity.” I worry sometimes that these web 2.0 tools are a double edged sword. They do allow us and our students to do create and produce amazing things but they are also incredibly addictive and distracting. In his book Presentation Zen Garr Reynolds suggests that the creative part of any presentation be done on paper away from any computers and I think he is right. Creativity needs to happen away from technology and then technology can be used to bring creative ideas to life.

    • This would be a great conversation face to face! I’ll do my best to type out the essentials!

      One thing I feel strongly about is that you can’t force creativity. The tone of the classroom is really important because, in my opinion, you need to feel a certain amount of comfort and safety in order to be creatively productive. You need to be safe enough to take risks. You need to be in the mindset to problem solve. You need to be willing to really work hard. You need a supportive environment. You need to be engaged and motivated. And some right-brain activities help to stimulate creative thinking, too!

      I see creativity as an opening of the mind into a divergent mode of thinking in which there is no correct answer. That’s one thing I love about teaching art, there is rarely one right answer to the questions asked when it comes to creating artwork. That said, there are many guiding principles that I teach students to incorporate into their work, such as colour theory, and at the start of each unit we decide on the assessment criteria for the project and all the activities leading up to that final piece of artwork.

      The one design approach by students appears in my room too. I assign thumbnail sketches (which can be adapted based on the project) to get around that. A thumbnail sketch is like a visual brainstorm assigned at the start of the design process. I ask students to create 6-8 thumbnail sketches for marks. The point is to complete more designs, quickly, and not spend 45 minutes on only one design. They choose the one they like the best or the design that can be developed most fully – then they can spend time on the details. Let me know if you’d like more info, your art teacher would probably be a good resource person to talk to.

      I also agree about your last thought on technology. It is a tool to be used at a certain point in the process and it is easy to forget that. We do all our work on paper in the art room first before heading down to the computer lab. I had thoughts on young children and creativity, too, but this is too long already! Suffice it to say that the two years I taught Kindergarten were priceless in terms of what I learned about creativity and imagination, not to mention all the other things that those five years olds taught me about teaching in general!

      • Have I mentioned how great it is to be talking to an art teacher about creativity! Thanks for all the great ideas. In particular you have made me realize that I am not providing my students with enough of a stimulating environment that really encourages creative thinking. I think they feel comfortable taking risks in my classroom but I just assume that when I say to them ‘ok go ahead and brainstorm 3 possible solutions to the problem’ that they know how to do this. I just realised while reading your response that creating is not the same as being creative.

        It makes sense to me that I need to do some right brain activities with them before I ask them to start designing. A number of years ago I read a book called Thinking by DeBono that I think had some good ideas for freeing up student thinking. In fact now that I mention his name I realise that he invented the Thinking Hats system for brainstorming, maybe I will try that. Do you know the system, students wear a pretend ‘hat’ (for example, red hat is for intuition; black hat is for negative comments; yellow hat is optimism etc) during the thinking process and are only allowed to come up with ideas/answers that go with the hat. In a way the hats put constraints on the kind of thinking the students can do and these constraints actually allow for more creativity. Garr Reynolds in Presentation Zen also mentions that creativity happens best when there are constraints imposed.

        Finally, have you seen this TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson entitled ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity’?


        • I haven’t heard of the Thinking Hats system but I’d like to try it! I do agree that strategically placed and well thought constraints do enhance creativity. That’s made me think of something else – have you read any of Selma Wasserman’s work? Her tiny little book ‘Asking the Right Questions’ was one of the most useful resources I ever bought. It’s about framing good questions that make students think.

          I’ve actually seen Sir Ken Robinson (BCSSA conference 2007?) and he was fantastic! His keynote was the same as that TED talk video and I definitely experienced a mind-shift as a result! I think I’m going to have to check out the Presentation Zen now, too!

  3. You asked: “Are there any other key elements of project based learning that are essential to it’s success?”

    My answer: Absolutely…..how are you going to manage the process?

    Please read this blog entry from Nick Ryan, an advisor at a PBL school (Minnesota New Country School) who understands the complexities that are inherent with this educational learning method:

    Project Foundry for Project Management

    One of the major challenges that PBL produces for all participants is the matter of project management. As any business professional will tell you, any given project that a person engages in produces a large papertrail covering the project proposal, estimates, logs for tracking time and materials, communications regarding the project between personnel and management, etc. This reality of a project applies to PBL schools as well.

    For the first ten years of MNCS existence, all aspects of project management were done on paper and in traditional filing systems. While this was before my time at MNCS, one can only imagine the amount of project paperwork that 120 students could produce in a year’s worth of project-based education, not to mention the time and resources that each student, advisor, and project manager would spend organizing and tracking all of these materials.

    Thanks to the miracle of digital storage and communication, we now use one basic website to manage all aspects of a student’s project based learning, from individual and group projects to cumulative academic transcripts. The website we use is called Project Foundry, and was designed by a small firm in Wisconsin with the needs of project based learning in mind. What was once contained in an endless array of binders and file cabinets is now contained on a simple array of hard drives in some IT complex, located just off of the information superhighway at http://www.projectfoundry.org.

    While project foundry has become a central aspect of our school system as a project based school, I could easily see where this tool could benefit more traditional districts that are looking to incorporate more authentic forms of learning and assessment into the curriculum. Managing the projects of 17 students is challenging; for a traditional teacher trying to incorporate projects into their curriculum, trying to manage 150-200 student projects would be a Herculean task. With a management tool like Project Foundry, authentic assessments like projects could be transformed from the side dish of a traditional classroom to the main course, and still be manageable for a single teacher.

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