Three views into the potential and power of project-driven learning. #iProject #iVenture

My dream is to build the world’s first underground park in New York City.

I always knew as a kid that I wanted to make a difference, and to somehow make the world more beautiful, more interesting and more just. I just didn’t really know how.

Dan Barasch: A park underneath the hustle and bustle of New York City

My dream is _______________________.

What a powerful sentence starter. What a powerful action starter. If we only treated it that way more often. What a profound entry point into an endless supply of worthwhile projects. And not the kind of “dessert-at-the-end” style projects that are all too common in schools when the “important content” has already been “covered.” But the kind of projects that serve as the meal and the fundamental sustenance on which the nutrients of interdisciplinary topics are baked in and intentionally made part of the main course. (On a brief aside, this makes me think that we might need “nutrition labels” on projects — like those nutrition labels on our cereal boxes and cans of food. But in this case, the learner would progressively include what learnings are contained in his or her project.)

People from all over contact me to talk about project work. I think more than a few struggle with seeing what others view as robust and vigorous projects. So, I look for examples to show people. Dan Barasch’s TED talk is just one such example. And it’s an excellent six minute view into how dreaming can materialize into a vibrant project of inquiry, innovation, and impact.

When Dan shares his vision and work on the Lowline, I also see the potential for almost any high schooler or middle schooler to showcase similar stories of their dreams and projects. Maybe they would’t have the 3D computer renderings of the proposed space, and maybe they wouldn’t have the solar arrays built for a pilot installation. Or maybe they could. With partnerships of internal and external experts. If not, they could be coached and supported to produce comparable and lower-resolution prototypes, sketches, concept drawings, etc.

So many possibilities to dig into one’s dreams. And as an integral part of schooling.

As this blog post was bouncing around in my head waiting for me to put it in writing, I re-watched October Sky with my family.

I was reminded of how Homer Hickam’s project started with an observation of Sputnik, a curious spark about rocketry, and a teacher who did not let her lack of knowledge about rocket science allow her to say, “I can’t do this — I don’t know anything about rocketry and it’s not part of our curriculum.” Still, Homer’s project, at least how it was portrayed in the movie, was mostly confined to time outside of school and the project work only “counted” in school thanks to the science fair possibility.

But what if that work had actually been a fundamental part of Homer’s schooling? And not simply confined to “Science” class, but originated in a project-block such that the subject-areas were allowed to weave together as they naturally do, unbridled by the typical boundaries of 55-minute, subject-narrow periods.

At the risk of seeming like this post is “all over the place,” I also remembered Dolphin Tale as my family watched October Sky last Friday night and visions of the Lowline project connected in my mind. Dolphin Tale is another “based on a true story” movie that shows how a student struggling with typical school finds a project that lights his heart and mind on fire. I first saw the movie on Oct. 1, 2011. I know because I walked out of the theatre and had to quickly record a blog post by phone.

Why do so many project ideas seem to happen outside of school? Why can’t they BE school? At least a part of school.

So, here are three examples that I believe help many people visualize the power of project-driven, transdisciplinary learning. I hope they help you see the potential of drawing this form of working and learning into our next iterations of school.

4 thoughts on “Three views into the potential and power of project-driven learning. #iProject #iVenture

  1. Craig,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. In fact, we at MVPS are experimenting with such work — through (i)Projects in the entire Upper School, and with (i)Ventures in the Innovation Diploma inaugural cohort. Additionally, we are partnered with LearnMetrics to pilot various dashboards to weave in learning that happens in a variety of settings for students.

    There are other examples, as well. For instance, I wonder if you have looked to BIG Iowa — Shawn Cornally’s new school.


  2. This morning I read an HBR blog post by Umair Haque called The Shape of the Meaning Organization. In it, he talks about how business needs to replace the strategy group with the wisdom group, and the organization’s lifeblood is in the hands of the significance team instead of the finance team. Reading that reminded me of what you said in a YouTube video that school transformation and entrepreneurship are actually very closely connected (the learner-premier). Your post above illustrates the necessity of the wisdom group and the significance team. What really strikes me about this post and all your posts is the reflective, contemplative, deep looking and deep listening work that you do. All these practices yield meaning, hence, a Meaning Organization. More than strategy or profit, I think what we need is meaning and meaning-makers. What has struck me today: how this kind of activity is most effective and beneficial when it is done in a community of thinkers-learners-doers (practitioners) and this community is the essential thing to develop because we all benefit from the giving and receiving that occurs with others. Thank you for the post.

    My dream is to serve in a community of meaning-makers (adults and young people) who are engaged in delight-directed learning, passion-based learning, and projects that benefit self and world.

    • Craig,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. I had not read that Haque piece, despite the fact that he is one of my favorite writers. It’s fantastic.

      It was great seeing you and your family at MakerFaire Atlanta, too!


      • I’ve been thinking more about your concept of giving school credit for projects that occur outside of school–projects that are passion-based and student-initiated. I strongly support this idea. I think it’s great. However, the current design of school is not designed for this to occur. School is currently designed to hand out “grades” for one’s performance on tests of standards. The design is geared towards regulation, justification, and even law enforcement. The other design flaw that needs to be addressed is the division between student and teacher. The teacher is basically in the role of a manager in an industrial model or even a manager of Peter Drucker’s knowledge workers. The teacher is in the role of law enforcement, management, and regimentation. A manager’s role is focused on regulated output, on production. What we’re dealing with in today’s world goes beyond the knowledge worker. It goes beyond being better managers. So somehow we need to design a new way of doing school that honors and encourages the kind of project-based learning that you suggest: it’s unique, it’s individual, it’s student-initiated and student-developed. It takes place outside of school. It lasts anywhere from one hour to one weekend to one year or more. So we need some kind of school design that supports this kind of learning because it’s the most authetic kind of learning, it’s the most relevant to the individual, and I believe it’s going to be of most value to others. The more relevent it is to the learner, then the more interesting it will be to others, and the more it will contribute to the whole. The teacher’s learning is divorced from the student’s learning. I think this is a tragedy. I wish there was some way that the teacher’s learning and the student’s learning was shared equally–so there was a greater reciprocity–more sharing. I wish there was some way to unify the the learning of the adults and the young people so that it was more unified or more integrated. I believe we can design school to do that.

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