A sense of delight in learning comes as much from encountering what you hadn't expected as it does from seeing a project shake out the way you intended it. I love project-based learning for the sense of accomplishment it engenders in students, but I miss the sense of surprise -- the notion that anything can happen. While it's important to help kids see the path that will enable them to succeed, I also want them to get lost from time to time -- not to take the road less traveled, but to leave roads altogether in favor of the forest.
A Deep Dive Into the Commonplace
In my career as a teacher, I've always opened a new lesson plan with questions (mine and my students'), thinking that it would help focus student thinking. A few years ago, I met a group of artists who told me that they create art in order to understand the question they should be asking. Clarity only comes (if at all) after long hours of working with tools, thinking differently about how to use them, and showing the results to peers and to an audience.
I was struck by the sense of freedom that artistic thinking might offer high school kids. Arts-based research, a methodology of inquiry promoted by Professors Shaun McNiff and Elliot Eisner, asks the researcher to begin an investigation, not with a predetermined sense of what is useful, but by remaining open to all possibilities for diving in. A cheeseburger and French fries aren't inherently fascinating, but a series of divergent leaps might lead one to investigate the global web of food production if you just start poking around in the meat. Surprise comes from really looking closely at something which you thought no longer had any secrets to share.
I decided to challenge my ninth-grade history class to recreate something incredibly commonplace, something so obvious that it's rarely ever thought about in a critical way, but which is essential to their survival: fast food. They would remake a McDonald's Happy Meal from scratch, including the packaging, using only materials they made themselves from local, sustainable sources. When not making food, they were encouraged to investigate any aspect of food they wanted, for as long as they wanted, and to jump to a new topic when they felt done with the old one. They just needed to tell everyone in the class what they'd learned from the experience.
Deconstructing and Remaking
The class itself followed the trajectory of an art project. The year began with the deconstruction of the Happy Meal down to every component, and the students dove into their own paths of investigation. For the first third of the year, they explored their tools, playing with modes of communication and various technologies. They developed research skills, asked questions, and interacted with a critical audience. They designed and taught each other various lessons, got used to providing critique, and dug into various aspects of the food industry that seemed pertinent to them. This would ideally shape how they recreated their Happy Meals.
We shifted our focus to making during the second part of the year. They planted seeds, collected the materials to make paper and ink, and to address the protein, raised day-old chicks for eventual slaughter. The students devised small experiments over these months, testing, observing and redesigning constantly, and working with farmers, chefs, and artists to make their components.
They kept journals for constant self-reflection to find meaning for what they were discovering, and to consider how their relationships to food were evolving. I asked them to explain why they chose their topics and how they problem-solved their way through research and production. While the content of their writing mattered, it wasn't really the goal. Those journals existed only to provide grist for their thinking. Just like artists, they were trying to figure out the right question to ask.
The final phase of the project was to curate what they had learned. They decided to make a meal for every member of the school community: chicken burgers featuring handmade bread and cheese, condiments and sides from our garden, and hand-pressed juice from our orchard. Displays, provocative questions, and short speeches informed the audience as to the purpose of the exhibit. On a deeper level, this phase challenged the students to explain how their own thinking had been transformed over the year and to illustrate their metacognitive growth.
Being Beautifully Lost
Was this curriculum successful? As one student wrote in their final reflection:
"This year has been incredible. I have learned more life lessons than actual history, and I am okay with that. We remade a Happy Meal from scratch -- we even killed chickens. This year went well for me at least because there was no set destination. It was mainly student-led, and our final project was completely thought up by the students. That is the way I like to learn -- give the students responsibility. Let them choose how they like to learn, let them find a new approach to tasks. The year is over and I wish that this teaching style could carry over to my next classes, but I realize if I want that teaching style, I have to exhibit it in myself. This is going to sound corny, but this class has opened my eyes to examine the world in a whole new light -- to actually care about what I eat and what I do. Being able to step back and examine the world and how humanity affects it is crazy."
Over the course of the year, I saw my students go from an initial sense of shock and confusion at the openness of the project to embracing a sense of what one student called "being beautifully lost." They freely invested more time and energy than I had expected and visibly matured more than any ninth-grade class that I ever worked with. The answer to me is clear: if we can't invest more money in the arts, we can at least make our classes more inherently artistic.
Have you used arts-based research with your students (even if you might have called it by another name)? Please share your experience below in the comments section.