“Places!” The audience settles. The lights go down and the curtain rises. It’s show time!
Many people would rather die than put themselves onstage, so they are comfortably seated as audience members, ready to be swept away by the performance. There are others who crave the limelight, and they are the actors waiting in the wings. There is one other who may watch the entire scenario from the back of the house, or may hide in the local bar until the show is over and the reviews come in—that’s the director—who takes all the credit (and all the blame) for the success of the show. These diverse roles in the theatre echo the roles and the process of project-based learning: the teacher as director, the students as actors, and the lucky students, parents, and community members who experience the final product as the audience.
Like producing a play, at the outset project-based learning (PBL) looks daunting. There are too many unknowns, too many variables, too much planning and far too much risk. It is much easier to find one way to teach a lesson and repeat, hone, repeat—a system that seems sensible enough. PBL requires a taste for adventure, the ability to think on one’s feet, adaptability, and a willingness to learn as much as is taught. Project-based learning, like any performing art, takes courage!
The PBL teacher wears the director’s hat and shapes the vision of the project. Concepts and standards become like the script, but the manner in which they are delivered becomes the creative connection that is so challenging about art and PBL. The teacher creates the project with a hopeful eye toward an exciting final product. The beauty and terror of artistic endeavors (and projects) is that from inception to completion a concept can take unexpected turns that may surprise the participants. The way each artist contributes may or may not match the original vision of the director, and the wisest directors find room for the final product to transcend their original idea. In plays and projects alike, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, so a surprising contribution may come from an unsuspected source that transcends and illuminates.
Directors often find a “spine” or “foundation” idea that they can bounce all other ideas off of to see if and how each choice serves the bigger picture. Without a solid core idea, productions falter, riddled with “why are we doing this?” In PBL we call this the driving question.
Mistakes are the portals of discovery. -James Joyce
In developing a project, a teacher may have an imagined end result in mind and plan backwards to achieve that goal. As the project unfolds, however, flaws in the design may appear. Some students may need more challenge, while others struggle to keep up. This happens to actors in rehearsal—one has many more lines, another must learn a new skill, yet another may have done the show before and seems miles ahead of his/her colleagues. The director must find ways to bring them all to their best for the opening night, just as the teacher must nurture individual students according to their individual needs.
Actors work hard to please their directors and even harder to please their audiences. Once an actor knows his loved ones—or better yet, his agent—is in the audience, energy and conviction abound. Similarly, to draw meaningful connections for students it is essential to find a powerful audience for the project. Public presentation raises the bar when the audience includes people from outside the classroom, experts in the field, and public figures, as well as friends and family. Presenting to a meaningful audience raises the stakes for students and teachers alike.
On opening night, once the curtain is up and the show has begun, the director has no control. The success or failure of the play is in the hands of the cast and crew that she has led to this culminating moment. It takes courage to step away and let the work stand or fall. When the play is over, the actors recall the impact of their performance on the audience and, like a new mother, forget the agony of childbirth to delight in the glory of the new baby. Meanwhile, the director moves on to the next production, just as the teacher moves on to the next project, a bit wiser and with a few more grey hairs.