Project-based learning is difficult to do well, but it is worth it! (Keep repeating this even when you’re covered in sawdust in the middle of the night on the weekend at school.)
When Ron Berger, the noted evangelist for project-based learning, came to High Tech High for the first time and saw my digital portfolio, he told me how great he thought it was. I was flattered and proud of myself. Then he said, “You should put all your projects online, and all your students’ work too.” Now I work harder showing the work than I do helping my students make it. I refer to Ron as my nemesis, half joking and half serious. But I know that having exhibition as an end goal, and knowing from the outset how the work will be displayed, helps me teach.
Planning, management and exhibition are equally important components of project-based learning. Without planning, the teacher is frantic, the students are bored, and the results are sloppy or non-existent. Without management, the students procrastinate, fall between the cracks, make work that they don’t like, and think the class is a joke. Without exhibition, the adult world connection is gone, the reflective moment is lost, and the money, time and effort of the project are wasted.
We have all offered excuses as to why we did not have planning, management and exhibition (PME) in place, insisting that the project was successful anyway. But when doing a project it makes a huge difference, for example, if you take the time to do the project yourself ahead of time, set every Wednesday as a check-in day, and figure out before the project begins how and where the work will be displayed.
Project planning can be complicated. You really have to know what you’re asking the students to do and how they will present their project, long before they finish. I always do the project myself first. That way, I can see if it is feasible and worthwhile, and if it looks good. If I can’t do a good job on it, then I figure the students will be at a serious disadvantage.
Here is an example of how I might plan for a semester-long class of seniors (three projects, ending in an exhibition), and what I think about when doing so. Remember: simple instructions beget complex results, while complex instructions limit results.
Project 1: Quote Painting
For the quote painting, students select a quote of interest, then illustrate it by painting a portrait of the person who said it. I am thinking it will be election time, and there will be a lot to say. The kids will learn how to alter images digitally and how to mix paint. They will understand that edge is important and value matters more than color. Ironic and humorous quotes will be encouraged, hate speech is unacceptable, and lies are not permitted (spin is lying).
The quote painting is a great small project for getting things on the wall fast. It will take two weeks. I’m sure of that because I made one in two hours, and experience tells me that one hour for me equals one week for my students. We will display this work in the entryway at High Tech High.
Project 2: What could you hide in a book?
In this sculpture project, students hollow out a book and place something inside. This is a cool assignment because the “book” is hiding something. When I made one, I experimented with six different glues, and the only one that worked well was rabbit skin glue (I really hope that it is just called that). I used a Dremel router to hollow out the book. This project, too, will take two weeks to make. These books will be displayed in boxes on the wall. I have already prepared boxes of many different sizes, and I can easily make more if necessary.
Students will brainstorm different concepts that can be represented in their books. We will critique their ideas in class. The students will make mockups in Photoshop of their ideas, incorporating qualities like these:
Something that makes no sense
Something that shows repetition
Something that shows classicism
Something that shows mythology
Something that shows social injustice
Something that shows love
Something that shows desire
Something that shows how open-minded you are
Project 3: Mini Kiosks with Video
Students will begin the project by making a DVD. The subject will be artists and their work, or a variation of this theme—maybe an art style, movement or theme. I’ll have them pick an artist, and if the kids propose a writer or musician, I’ll determine if it is okay. I don’t want music videos; I want thought and artfulness.
Working in teams of two, students will have two weeks to complete the DVD. Too much time wasted will kill this project. Then, using graphics from the DVD, they will make a kiosk that will house their DVD and draw people to it. These video kiosks will be placed around the school, near wall sockets so the video can run continuously. I made the kiosk pictured here using a DVD player that my kids had, but we have old laptops around the school that students can use.
All three projects will be complete at least two weeks before exhibition night. Each student will write a review of another student’s work for the semester. These reviews will be displayed at the exhibition and on the web, providing a critical view of each body of work.
To be a good manager you must be consistent. That is hard; however, after freak-out deadlines and poor and incomplete work, I’ve decided to be consistent. It’s easier that way.
I post due dates on the web.
I make a list of all the things that students need to do by the next check-in, and then they get 10 points if the work is completed on time. I use a receipt book from a restaurant and provide them with copies, so we are on the same page.
The expectation is that if the student does not do his/her best and work hard, the project will not be displayed. Only three times in the past eight years has a student worked his/her hardest and had a project not turn out. This tells me that working hard is the key that separates the work that goes up on the walls from work that does not. The important thing is to communicate clearly your expectation of hard work the whole semester through check-ins and daily reminders.
Exhibiting projects is a difficult task. Sometimes you get lucky and it comes together on its own. Mostly it takes planning and skill to do it well. I personally have been knocked unconscious hanging a ceramic mobile. I saw stars, and if I had planned it better and thought it out I would have never been in that position, 15 feet in the air on a lift, unconscious.
Disclaimer: I am an artist. I have framed many art shows and hung lots of paintings and prints. I have built houses and have been in and out of construction for 22 years. So, I have an advantage in that I know my materials and how things have been historically displayed. Still, I visit art museums and science museums as much as I can, looking at the art or the science but also noting the way it has been displayed. I read about curatorial theory in Art in America. I check out the way store windows and interior displays are set up for new and creative ideas. What I am saying is you have to keep working. You have to keep looking at the world around you, and the way things are designed, to get fresh ideas for exhibiting student work. There is no silver bullet or magic pill, just experience and the habit of looking at your own work in a critical way.
If you are just starting out and haven’t done exhibitions before, make sure to have the students finish their work ahead of time so you can try different things. If you can lay the work out, you can see what it will look like all together. Symmetry is very important. If all the projects have a similar component that makes them look like a series, or at least pieces tied together in some way, it will be easier to design a display that expresses a coherent idea to the viewer.
A good example of this is a project I designed last year: Analog Flash for Windows (for a full description, go to http://jeffrobin.hightechhigh.org/index.htm). In this project, students had to work in pairs to make an interactive art piece that explained a physics or mathematics concept for installation in a 24” x 24” x 5” window box. As you can see here, we got a lot of different results, but they all look connected to each other.
Even if the works are different, you can hang them on the same level, and the cards that explain the work can be hung at the same level. All the descriptions should be written on the same size card, using the same font, size and title format. Go to a museum and take a look: symmetry!
Timing is everything. You need to plan to hang and display work, just as with everything else you do as a teacher. Figure that if you think it will take one hour to display a project, it will take three hours.
All of these things that I have suggested will come together in time, as you start to evaluate the projects you’ve done with your students. You ask the students to analyze and evaluate their work. What would you give a student who handed in late, unfinished, sloppy work that was poorly displayed? Now look at the way you have planned, managed and exhibited your students’ work. What grade should you get?
The easiest and most successful way to teach is to plan. I can’t believe I am saying this! I have really changed. Good Luck!