Four years ago I decided to leave my job as a designer and brand manager to get involved in education. I felt that the products I designed were not going to matter in a few years. I wanted to leave a meaningful legacy. I was sure that I could integrate my knowledge of real world business and engineering practices to create an effective learning experience.
My journey from industry to the classroom has been filled with challenges and great rewards. I suppose it would be best described as an exercise in faith. I believed that I could make a difference as a teacher, but I was not sure what that looked like or how I was supposed to make it happen. Project-based learning is learning by doing, and I believe we learn better by doing than by listening or watching.
At first, doing project-based learning was like trying to cross the ocean on stepping stones without getting wet—while blindfolded and during a typhoon. I could easily implement the math and engineering pedagogy that I had experienced as a student. However, what is easily taught in lectures and assessed in multiple-choice quizzes often has little or nothing to do with what should be learned. I wanted to teach innovation, not rote memorization or the abstract problem solving I was taught in high school.
I believe that grades often train students to avoid failure. This is a mistake because failure is learning and is necessary for innovation. Our successes demand little reflection, but our failures make us question everything. Imagine your first dating relationship. Unless you are among the few who met their life partner in high school, it probably did not work out and neither did the next several attempts. When it does not work out, we learn about ourselves and others. Perhaps it was not the right time, we did not know what we wanted, our friends did not get along, we could not be ourselves around them, maybe their eyes were too close together, or something just did not feel right. If school should teach us anything it is that learning comes from pushing yourself until you fail, figuring out what went wrong, and fixing it. Ideally, project-based teachers will plan enough time for multiple failures—their own and students’—so that by the end, the project is a smashing success.
One of the mistakes I made as a beginning teacher was that I spent too much time on direct instruction, before the students had a chance to love engineering the way I did—through tinkering. When I began teaching a year and a half ago, I was lost in a sea of variables that affected student performance, yet were difficult to control and assess: learning styles, student interest, project authenticity, academic content, academic rigor, team teaching dynamics, resource acquisition, student interpersonal dynamics, group project assessment, classroom culture, parent-student relationships, diets, impending holidays, recent student break-ups, the amount of corn syrup or caffeine in a student’s system at any given point, and the list goes on. All of the well-meaning project-based learning books combined could not have prepared me for the deluge of frustration that I experienced my first year as a project-based teacher. I struggled with all aspects of the process. I worked hard, but at times it seemed like my students and I were going nowhere. I wanted to create a successful learning experience that was open-ended enough to inspire innovation but structured enough to keep the students and me from going crazy.
Eventually, I learned that nothing could replace careful preparation and planning on my part. That said, I also knew that the most beneficial learning experiences allowed for active exploration. My plans needed to be flexible enough to allow for dynamic inquiry, where students could work at different paces. Through many mistakes and by observing my students and my colleagues, I discovered that my role was not to try to hold students’ attention during forty-five minute lectures. It was to inspire students with a well-organized project that addressed real world problems, and then to create an environment conducive to learning. This meant supporting students in their quest for solutions and in reflecting on their learning. It also meant that I spent as little time as possible on direct instruction, and as much time as possible challenging students to find new answers, scaffolding for individual students’ needs, and fine-tuning my project designs.
At times the only thing that kept me going in the early days of my teaching career was my director and our supportive staff. I remember after an exceptionally long day, the director called me to grab a bite after work. He shared his struggles as a new teacher, showed me the importance of establishing a solid class culture, and encouraged me. Having that support made all of the difference. It made my own learning possible. It also made me realize that I needed to focus more on establishing a positive class culture.
It is an article of faith for me to proceed without knowing if what I am doing is going to connect with the students and be an effective learning experience. It is also an article of faith for the students to trust that I am going to guide them through the difficult and ambiguous situations that occur in innovative project-based problem solving.
To be successful my students had to trust that I was going to lead them to the edge of their ability, but not past it. Establishing this mutual trust is perhaps the most important aspect of project-based learning. At the start of this past semester I spent the first week using team builders to create a culture of trust and excellence. I have learned that trust does not grow quickly using scripted team building exercises. Instead, trust occurs when students feel like they are known and understood. Executing a small hands-on project early in the semester gave my students confidence that they could do engineering, as well as the chance to get excited about it. It gave me the opportunity to talk one-on-one with the students and hear what they were interested in.
In general, students entering my class have no idea what they are capable of. Most are unaware of how the objects in the world around them work. Many of them begin engineering afraid to fail or even to attempt complex projects. At the end, they realize that failure paves the road to success. The greatest reward for me is to see my students find faith in their own ability to accomplish what they never thought possible.