Professional Learning

How to Design Student Projects Like a Pro

March 18, 2010

With one big idea after another -- from the Apple mouse to more patient-friendly emergency rooms -- the global consulting firm IDEO has built a reputation for innovative thinking.

In a new book, Change by Design, CEO Tim Brown shares key strategies that have catapulted his firm to success. I found myself enthusiastically nodding along as I imagined the same strategies applied to project learning (PL).

21st Century Kid

Although Brown makes a strong case for unlocking creativity in the classroom, his main focus is not education. Instead, he describes a process for problem solving that he calls design thinking. (Read about a Stanford University initiative to bring design thinking into education in this article, "Educators Approach Curriculum Development as Product Design," about the program.)

It's through projects, Brown says, that ideas move from concept to reality.

With rich examples, Brown gives us a behind-the-scenes look at projects from different sectors. He also brings up many of the questions that I hear teachers ask as they get started with PL: What's the right question to launch a project? How do we form effective teams? How can we manage our time better?

Getting Started

One of Brown's favorite strategies is to build on others' ideas. So, following his lead, I've borrowed five of his field-tested strategies and reframed them for PL:

1. Start with a Project Brief

Designers typically start a project with a brief. Brown explains that this document describes "a set of mental constraints that gives the project a team a framework from which to begin, benchmarks by which they can measure progress, and a set of objectives to be realized."

Translate this to PL language and you wind up with a solid project plan that's based on standards and incorporates authentic assessment. Just like a well-designed brief, a good PL plan sets some constraints but isn't overly scripted. As Brown reminds us, it's important to leave room for breakthrough ideas: "If you already know what you are after, there is usually not much point in looking."

2. Ask, "How Might We...?"

Each design challenge at IDEO, Brown says, begins with this question: "How Might We?" Brown offers one example -- "How might we improve the airport-security experience?" -- to introduce a fascinating case study about a project with the Transportation Security Administration.

Similarly, in PL, a well-crafted driving question helps to focus student inquiry. The right-sized question for a project is neither too broad nor too specific. And if it can be answered by going to Google, it's the wrong question to ask.

3. Form Smart Teams

"All of us are smarter than any of us." That's a popular saying around IDEO, Brown says, and suggests why every project involves a team effort.

In PL, as in real life, projects are typically too large for one person to tackle solo. Teachers can learn from the pros when it comes to forming and managing project teams. "Smart teams," Brown tells us, are typically small, focused, and multidisciplinary. What's more, teams tend to get their best results when members share a sense of optimism about the task and have opportunities to exchange thoughts verbally as well as visually.

4. Make Rules for Better Brainstorming

Brainstorming is so central to its work that IDEO has rooms dedicated to this process. It's worth remembering that brainstorming is a process, complete with rules of engagement. At IDEO, Brown says, these rules are literally written on the walls: Defer judgment. Encourage wild ideas. Stay focused on the topic. And, perhaps most important, build on the ideas of others.

To keep classroom brainstorming sessions from turning into a free-for-all, PL teachers would be wise to create rules of engagement with their students and then keep these rules posted in a visible spot. Think of it as an opportunity to brainstorm about brainstorming.

5. Embrace the Mess

Complexity comes with the territory for folks like Brown. He identifies some of the skills that help design thinkers do their challenging work: "the ability to spot patterns in the mess of complex inputs, to synthesize new ideas from fragmented parts, to empathize with people different from ourselves." In other words, design thinkers learn how to "embrace the mess."

Letting Go

Project learning is often a messy endeavor, too. In well-designed projects that allow for student choice, team members may be working on a number of different activities simultaneously. Some may go in unexpected directions or ask questions for which the teacher has no ready answers. Then there's the "stuff" of projects, which may involve research, prototypes, storyboards, or multimedia presentations.

Embrace this mess, too, suggests Brown.

At IDEO, teams are assigned project rooms where they can keep the artifacts of their work-in-progress. Keeping all this stuff visible "helps us identify patterns and encourage creative synthesis to occur," he says. It also gives team members opportunities to see and talk about each other's work.

Inside of hiding the mess behind cupboards or in desks, welcome it as the raw material of ideas.

What strategies help you navigate projects with your students? Please tell us what works.

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