One of the scariest things about deciding to use a project-based learning approach with your students is letting go. My experience has been that even the most creative teachers who have taken the leap into the PBL waters continue to find it difficult to let go of their role as teacher, despite having the best intentions for their students.
So why is this? I have a theory. Ego. What we commonly refer to as ‘ego’ is simply our self-esteem, our self-worth, our pride. When I first started teaching, I would hear things like, ‘How did your students do in the exam?’ Now I’m more likely to hear things like, ‘I got ten students with top results.’ This shift in focus from ‘their’ results to ‘my’ results is problematic but understandable in the current educational climate. There is so much pressure on teachers to meet certain benchmarks, especially when things like salaries become tied to student achievement. So when we mix PBL into a climate like this, what is the result? Sometimes, sadly, the focus on ‘results’ can be transferred to a focus on the final ‘products’ or ‘presentations’ that students share at the end of a project.
The nature of PBL is such that students are required to take responsibility for their learning. They own their learning, and if necessary, they own their failures as well. Unfortunately, when teacher accountability or ego comes into play, often failure is seen as a dirty word and we find teachers working tirelessly to ensure that the final product and/or presentation is at a standard that meets their expectations. Or worse, a perceived expectation of the expert or audience. The teacher is actually afraid to let their students fail because, naturally, they feel that this failure will reflect badly on them. As a result, we have students who become overly dependent on the goodwill (or anxiety?) of their teachers and therefore less self-reliant and even less willing to take risks or challenge norms. This, indeed, is problematic.
Real PBL teachers don’t do the work for their students. They don’t spend hours cutting and pasting, baking cakes or making signs. They aren’t up all night editing books or films, or making the presentation slides for their students. The best experiences I have had as a PBL teacher are when I have been actively involved in guiding my students through the process of trial and error, and then stepped back on the day of celebration. A well-planned project will allow students plenty of time to experiment, to take risks and to learn haphazardly. Yes, this may result in slightly dodgy picture books or poorly edited sound in films or nervous students reading from palm cards. Sometimes we can catch these ‘failings’ in the process of project work and sometimes we can’t. We need to be willing to accept that the young people in our care are learners and be secure in sharing their learning journey with others outside of the school. Yes, it can be very intimidating to allow people from outside in, but my experience is that we are much, much more critical of our students than anyone else. Remember, these guests have come to see what your students can do, not what you can do.
I firmly believe that in order to allow your students to learn, you need to give them the opportunity to fail. If I can leave you with one final note, it’s this: you can do the work for your students but you can’t do the learning for them.