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What Makes a Good Project?

Eight elements to guide great

project design
by Gary Stager, Ph.D.

Teachers instinctively know that projects constructionism; the idea that the best Complexity. The best projects combine
are worthwhile, even if they do not way to construct knowledge, or multiple subject areas and call upon the
understand every facet of a good project understanding, is through the prior knowledge and expertise of each
or have experience supporting project- construction of something shareable, student. Best of all, serendipitous insights
based learning. For too many students, the outside of a student’s head. Those and connections to big ideas lead to the
term “project” means any activity that is artifacts are commonly thought of as greatest payoff for learners.
not worksheet-based or takes longer than projects, even though the project
a 42-minute class period. I have seen too development process is where the Intensity. Children have a remarkable
many instances of unimaginative learning occurs. Such artifacts are capacity for intensity that is rarely
assignments turned into projects just by evidence of learning. tapped by the sliced-and-diced
giving students weeks for completion. curriculum. Projects provide an outlet
That five paragraph essay about caribou is Elements of a good project for the exercise of that intensity. Think
transformed into a project when students Purpose and Relevance. Is the project about how long kids can spend
are given two months to obsess over it. personally meaningful? Does the mastering a video game, reading a
The inevitable procrastination leads to project prompt intrigue in the learner favorite book series, memorizing the
increased stress and an imperceptible enough to have him or her invest time, attributes of Pokemon, or building a tree
improvement in quality. house, and you have a good template for
effort, and creativity in the development
successful project-based learning.
of the project?
The protean nature of computers as
Time. Sufficient time must be provided Connected. During great projects
constructive material with which you
for learners to think about, plan, students are connected to each other,
may explore powerful ideas and express
execute, debug, change course, expand, experts, multiple subject areas, powerful
yourself in a myriad of ways makes a
and edit their projects. Class time ideas, and the world via the Web. The
wider range and depth of projects
affords students equal access to lessons learned during interpersonal
possible like never before. The
expertise and materials; projects may connections that are required by
Constructivist Consortium is
also need sufficient out-of-school time. collaborative projects last a lifetime.
committed to using computers in
creative ways in which interdisciplinary While there is some merit in organizing
projects demonstrate student student groups to “teach” collaboration,
competence and connect knowledge Elements I prefer a more natural environment in
domains. Open-ended software of a good project which students collaborate (or do not)
supports learning diversity and allows • Purpose and Relevance based on their own needs.
multiple entry points into a sea of ideas. • Time
Seymour Papert once said, “If you can • Complexity Collaboration may consist of observing
make things with computers, then you a peer, asking a quick question, or by
• Intensity
can make a lot more interesting things.” working with the same teammates for
• Connected
the duration of a project.
Making things is better than being passive, but • Access
making good things is better still! • Shareable Access. Students need access to a wide
• Novelty variety of concrete and digital materials
The Constructivist Consortium anytime, anyplace. Personal student
believes in Papert’s theory of laptops make this possible, but we also

20 the creative educator

need to think about the quality and things they need to learn. Asking kids to Who does the project satisfy? Is the
quantity of craft materials, books, tools, solve world peace is a dopey project idea learner as enthusiastic a beneficiary of
hardware, software, and Internet access because they can not get their heads or the project as the person giving her a
that allows learners to follow paths we arms around such ill-defined, infinitely grade? Great projects benefit the learner
may never have anticipated. complex problems. more than the teacher.

When nonconsumable materials are Requiring students to assume the role What can they do with that? Seymour
used, such as LEGO, a sufficient of people with whom they share no life Papert taught me that anything you ask
quantity is necessary to ensure that experience causes other problems. This of a student should lead to the
students have everything they need for is why conference panel discussions construction of a more complex
their projects and can leave the finished asking school students to invent the question or a larger theory. Otherwise,
products together long enough for others to future of education leads to a stream of we should rethink the assignment. Great
learn from them. The last thing you want banalities and audience boredom. projects, like hobbies, have a self-
is one student cannibalizing a regulating feedback loop. Incremental
classmate’s work during project creation. success motivates a student to try
something more ambitious or to
Shareable. This is the big idea of enhance the project. Bugs or mistakes
project-based learning! Students need lead students to rethink problems and
to make something that is shareable test new strategies. Powerful learning
with others. This provides a great deal occurs in both instances.
of motivation, relevance, perspective
making, reciprocal learning, and an Making Memories
authentic audience for the project. Ever woken up late on a Saturday
morning and realized that you have no
“A project is something you want to share” is milk for your coffee? You pull a coat over
a sufficient definition for learners of all ages. your pajamas, put on a hat, and run to the
The brilliant educators of Reggio local Kwickie Mart. Just as you are leaving
Novelty. Few project ideas are so
Emilia, Italy, teach us that a well- the store unrecognized, a former student
profound that every child needs to
designed, open-ended, learner-definable sees you from across the parking lot. She
engage in its development in every
prompt is the best starting place for comes rushing towards you and your
class, or year after year. Yes, that means
project-based learning. Rather than ask, unbrushed teeth with arms outspread and
that it may be time to rethink the
“How would you make the world a gives you an awkward hug. The former
annual marshmallow adobe project. If
better place?” Reggio educators might student wants to reminisce. She
one student makes a fantastic discovery
ask three year olds, “Can you make a enthusiastically begins a sentence,
during a project, others can learn from
park for the birds who come to visit our “Remember that time we…” The rest of
it without slavishly repeating the steps
school?” Kids immediately have a the sentence is never “crammed for the
of the pioneering student. In a healthy
starting point they can wrap their heads standardized test” or “used all of our
community of practice, learning
around. They know about birds and spelling words in one big stupid sentence.”
continues and knowledge is shared
parks and can build all sorts of The student’s reminiscence always
naturally without coerced repetition.
representations. In the process they concludes with a description of a project.
learn about birds, measurement,
Questions Worth Asking Projects are what students remember
engineering, and collaboration and
Is the problem solvable? Projects often long after the bell rings. Great teachers
develop a plethora of powerful ideas no
begin with a problem statement. Too many know that that their highest calling is to
teacher is smart enough to anticipate.
school projects are based on problems make memories.
unsolvable by students. That is not always Is the project monumental or substantial?
a bad thing, since a student might learn a Schools require kids to produce all sorts Biography
lot before appreciating the enormity and of monumental work, like that work Gary Stager has spent
complexity of a problem. That is a worthy sheet featuring 200 similar arithmetic the past twenty-six years
outcome in itself. Completely solving a problems. The goal is substantial work, as an internationally
problem about fixing a levee may be too where a student wants to engage and may recognized educator,
advanced for Kindergartners, but they exceed our expectations. The goal of speaker, and consultant.
could learn the complexity of the problem school should be for students to engage Gary Stager, Ph.D. He is the Executive
and gain an appreciation for the other in substantial work. Director of the Constructivist Consortium.

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