I was thrilled to see Bianca Hewes (@BiancaH80 on Twitter) rated among the top eight PBL blogs in the world by Global Digital Citizen! It’s not surprising to me, because Bianca has been so open, so transparent about her own learning arc when it comes to optimizing PBL. I wish more teachers could let go and accept that we don’t have perfect plans in order for students to learn from our projects!
One of my favorite blogs is one in which Bianca coined the phrase “managing the mushy middle.” It’s a question teachers ask – and honestly fear – when it comes to trying a more authentic, student-driven version of project-based learning. Teachers new to PBL may master planning for what Yong Zhao calls “academic PBL,” or what I like to call “project-based assignments.” As they move toward something more creative, something in which students have a chance to be more creative, teachers often find that their plans fall apart.
Now, it’s an axiom of planning that “no plan survives first contact,” but that doesn’t make the experience fun. Bianca’s blog did just that.
Take a look at the initial question – How can we make the PBL process killer for our kids? See what I mean? Sure, she credits her husband, Lee, but after spending a day touring Sydney with both of them back in 2013 I can tell you that together they are a killer teacher improv group. “Yes, and” thinking is what you – and your students—need to survive the “mushy middle,” and this is what Bianca was trying to tell us when she wrote: “PBL is essentially a messy process where the best thing a teacher can do is step out of the way and let kids work things out for themselves.”
To that, I just have to say, “Amen, sister!”
In the last two years, many of the suggestions from this post have become the “assets” we look for at Project ARC when visiting a school, whether they want to try PBL for the first time, or they want to “level-jump” their PBL experiences. Are the spaces, the resources, the materials, and the assessments out there in a way that the students can get to them when they need them, or is the teacher in the way? Do the students have a voice? I don’t mean whether they get to choose what they can make for a project-based assignment. I mean do they have voice in what they want to do with a project in a way that will further their own learning? Finally, do they have a voice in assessing that learning? Teachers are often doing these things, and we’ve found that if you alert teachers to that fact, they’re much more likely to approach the “mushy middle” with confidence rather than fear.
Bianca’s post also got me thinking about our own “end in mind” as teachers. For those outside the States, that phrase in quotes may not weight as heavily as it does here America’s public schools. Aussies and others feel weights of their own, however, weights that tell teachers we must have a model, must implement that model with fidelity, and then must judge our efforts a success or failure based on the data that model yields. That wasn’t the authors’–Wiggins and McTyghe—intent when they asked educators to design with the “end in mind,” but that’s been the outcome, for better or worse as educators are expected to standardize their teaching. Standardization makes the “mushy middle” frightening. It forces educators to ask themselves: What if my PBL doesn’t produce the outcomes imagined as the “end in mind?” The success of our young learners, and our own careers, is on the line, right?
What I hope you’ll notice, and what I know Bianca appreciates, is that the preceding two paragraphs are quite different. The first one is all about learning – how I learned from Bianca, how teachers have learned from what we’ve shared, and how our learners grow when we focus on teacher assets rather than teacher error. The same is true for our learners! The paragraph after it all about teaching. It’s about what we’re supposed to do, how well we’re supposed to do it, and the fear of failure that comes because we want to be fully prepared before we allow our students to participate in PBL.
Those are two very different ends to hold in mind, and it’s time we seriously consider taking up the challenge of re-designing our practice around learning rather than teaching. There are lots of reasons to do this, but I’ll leave you with one, and a call to join me as I begin to participate in this challenge.
If you haven’t watched it, check out Sugata Mitra’s TED talk about the ways in which students are quite capable of teaching themselves. People are focused on the fact that this happened through interaction with computers, but Mitra’s research stresses that it is the student-driven participation that matters as much or more than the object around which that participation is organized. A challenging PBL experience, organized around a relevant problem, can have much the same effect. That will only happen if we let the middle get mushy enough that students have the opportunity to participate in the Self Organized Learning Environment that results when things get “mushy.”
Finally, if you’d like to think deeply about how our end in mind might be better served by designing PBL experiences where the middle is “mushy” by design, I’d like to invite you to join me as I launch a new book project, “Participation is Preparation,” on Publishizer this month. That’s right, I’m inviting you to join me in the mushy process of writing a book, rather than expecting you to just buy something I already have planned out. There are lots of different ways to participate. Pick the one that feels right to you, and join me in the “mushy middle.” Once we start participating, I’m sure we’ll learn a lot, together.