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By Eleanor K. Smith and Margaret Pastor

A few summers ago, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) chose two teachers from our school to work with NASA scientists at the John Glenn Research Center in Ohio for a week. One of the things they learned was how NASA classifies missions. A “C” mission is allowed to fail; a “B” mission should succeed, but failure is a possibility; and an “A” mission must succeed.

When the teachers returned to school, they asked their 5th graders for examples of what might fit into each category. Students figured out that an “A” mission involved astronauts which is why failure was not a possibility. When an “A” mission failed, astronauts died. They also decided that failing at a “C” mission might be OK because scientists would be were learning from their failures.

Teachers need to approach project-based learning as if it is a “C” mission so they can let students “fail” and learn from these “failures.” Educators often don’t jump on board the project-based learning band wagon because of their fear that students will fail.

Using project-based learning in a classroom involves a pretty big leap of faith. Teachers are moving away from cookie-cutter lessons that are being presented in every classroom. Sometimes these are lessons that have been structured by their school district to promote student success on standardized tests.

What also adds to this risk is that true project-based learning demands that the teacher take a novel stance. Like other standard teaching approaches, PBL starts with a teacher prompt and has guidelines based in what the teacher hopes to accomplish. PBL is also based in school district curriculum. However, projects must be directed and led by students. Talk about risking a “failure mission”!  But if we look at what we really want to accomplish with students — increasing their ability to read, write, calculate, and be critical thinkers — then we can go back to the NASA criteria where “C” missions are acceptable as students learn from their “failures.”

So how do students direct and lead in project-based learning? We looked at this, discussed this, observed teachers in our building during instruction, and discovered that teachers who were having the most success with project-based learning shared a common thread:  They were listening to students. Really listening. Once teachers introduced the topic to the class, they listened for what students wished to know, found intriguing, and claimed as the area that they would take on. Then teachers guided students to what they needed to research, create, and present to accomplish their own goals.

Over several years of the 5th-grade class designing and creating a Martian colony, the students of each class took directions unique to their own interests. Some created and ran a Martian government, several designed a spa complete with supplies needed for a year, others developed a farm as a food source, built a Martian lander and rover, and fielded several sports teams representing their colony.

Some of these ventures were “failed missions” in the end. For example, some students designed a Martian cattle ranch which involved sending cows from Earth to Mars and eventually converting those cows into food to feed the residents of the Martian colony. Great plan — until students discovered (two months into their project) that the cost of this Martian beef would be about $5,000 per each half pound of hamburger. The students solved this problem by deciding to only bring dairy animals and to use them for dairy products.

As the staff and students became more comfortable with risking failure, we began to see the demise of the traditional bulletin board where all grade-level displays looked the same, full of perfect work created by perfect students. Instead, we saw diverse displays full of student work in progress. Few of the displayed pieces were perfect. The information presented varied widely around the main project topic. Students were engaged, proud, and had total ownership of their work.

This acceptance of failure as important to learning was on display when two outside administrators visited. These 5th graders worked so independently. They were on task, engaged, and eager to share what they were working on with the visitors. When one of the visitors asked a student a question she could not answer, she pulled out her tablet, did some research, then located the visitors down the hall to respond to their query. This young lady had ownership of her project and saw “not knowing” as an opportunity for learning.

For teachers to be willing to allow students to experience “failures,” the support and encouragement of the building administrators is necessary. At present and for the past many years, the success of the building principal has been judged by the standardized test scores of the school. Even though our test scores were rising in all academic areas these tests measure only a narrow band of knowledge, a band far too narrow to prepare students for the real future. Meanwhile, project-based learning taps into skills and higher-order thinking of an entirely different order and assumes the long view in building those abilities. Valuing those higher abilities will open the door to better strategies for teaching and learning such as project-based learning and an acknowledgement of the need for the “C” mission.

Starting down the road to project-based learning with a teaching staff that had been trained and experienced in an instructional program with a bias toward direct teacher-led instruction was a bumpy journey. Project-based learning requires not only a new paradigm but also that the teacher develop such habits as a focus on the student role in learning and fostering creative problem solving. Just as important, most teachers themselves have had years of schooling that did not look like project-based learning.

Ideally, teachers work in an environment where they productively support each other in learning about and developing projects. Projects require both massive front loading of the process and an openness to new directions that may appear along the way. Collaboration with peers improves the quality through the combined knowledge and ideas. However, teachers who have worked chiefly in isolation can find this step to be uncomfortable at first.

So how do teachers support each other when they are working on different projects that are student directed in every classroom? What do teachers do who are used to sharing only worksheets, tests, homework assignments, and other materials? Many of these teachers are already feeling overloaded, overworked, and overwhelmed with expectations.

In our school, we found that teachers were most successful when they picked projects that deeply interested them. Their projects were a labor of love. They already had many of the materials that they needed. And once students took the lead in directing the project, students started to bring in materials from home. The teacher became a facilitator and director. They did not need to create worksheets; students read and wrote as they created their own materials. Students created their own math problems and solved them. Grades were given for student work. Teachers graded “failed” projects on the strength of the academics involved, not whether the idea actually worked in the end. (The students designing the Martian cattle ranch all received high grades because their work was comprehensive and academically above grade level in reading, writing, and math.) In addition, teachers supported each other with ideas and ways to improve their projects.

For true and successful project-based learning, teachers need to listen to students, let them lead the project, and allow those “C” missions to occur. A student reminded us of the importance of putting students at the center of their own learning and allowing them to discover how to reach their own goals.  She wrote this in a thank-you letter to the teacher at the end of 5th grade: “I learned a lot about Mars. I do not want to ever live on Mars, and don’t want to be an astronaut. But after helping to establish and serving in the Martian government, I have decided to be the president of the United States when I grow up.”
ELEANOR K. SMITH (ekshgs@gmail.com) is a special education resource teacher, and MARGARET PASTOR (peggypastor@gmail.com) is principal, both at Stedwick Elementary School, Montgomery Village, Md. Their last Kappan article was “Engage me and I learn,” which was published in the October 2016 issue.