This is My Project

For Design for Learning by Creating, we were tasked with creating something as a core component of the class. The class included little instruction and a good amount of activities that seemed like a waste of time. My frustration peaked when I looked up from a collage I was tasked with making, realizing I was paying $6000 to sit in this room and cut paper while the entire world of academia lay outside the doors. Any class seemed like a better choice than this one.

I chose a project that I was excited about, that would teach me valuable skills, but one where the end-goal, the objective, was already set for me. It would be interesting but I also knew it would get completed because it was part of my job. I didn’t know how I would get there or what the product would look like, but I had constraints set for me by the people I was doing the work for. It was a closed project, but it sounded fun.

I worked hard and learned amazing things about qualitative research and how teachers understood documentation and assessment in the context of maker-centered learning. I wasn’t given much specification about how to make sense of the survey results I was asked to analyze, which made it thrilling to produce a product the researchers approved of and was useful to their work. There was a challenge, a risk, a goal, completion, iteration, and learning.

But this project wasn’t mine. I didn’t set its constraints or decide where I was going. Some of the best educational environments I have observed were effective and empowering because the constraints and the goals were already set for kids. I watched students learn skills many adults don’t even have and then find pride in their finished creations, all in the context of projects where the goal and the constraints were set for them. I decided to test and see if there were different results or benefits when the creation process is defined by the idea of bricolage, the tinkering towards an end that isn’t exactly clear or even known, where the learner sets the goal instead of someone else.

A few projects presented themselves as natural extensions of my interests. After a trip to the art museum, I felt there were commonalities between the pictures that spoke to me, the ones that elicited an emotional response. So I spend a day sifting through gallery archives and online databases, curating a collection of pieces that resonated. I ended up doing a good bit of research on the Luminist American art movement, which helped me learn that most of the paintings I valued had light as a centerpiece of the painting.

I did a statistical analysis of my professor’s response time to emails, wanting to see if it was associated with the program a student was in, the time or day of the week the email was sent, or their gender. He is notorious for responding to emails quickly--I was curious to see just how quickly. I found that he is incredibly consistent across the variables and that he gets back to 75% of emails in less than 30 minutes, but that you may get a slightly faster response time if you’re a female in the IEP program emailing him on a Friday around 3:00. I presented it to him and the class on the last day as a thank you for his hard work. 

I wrote a blog post for HGSE, met with at least one professor every week, started a T550 discussion group, and few other things. All of these non-deterministic, open projects had a several things in common that the handed-down, closed projects didn’t:

  • Joy: I just enjoyed them more. Although there was a sense of accomplishment when I finished my qualitative research work, it wasn’t the same as finding a moment of completion on a task you were engrossed in. When I presented analysis of my professor's email habits to him as well as seeing the response from the class, I felt joy in seeing something I created be received, appreciated, and enjoyed by others. Part of the joy, I believe, was rooted in not knowing how it would be received and then being surprised that it was. 
  • Flow: I was more committed and felt like I entered deeper into the work of the projects that I chose, that didn’t have a set end. I would find myself unaware of time and not distracted by other work. I could disappear into the task.
  • Satisfaction: There is satisfaction when you complete a project someone else decided for you, but when you take on the responsibility of determining what your project looks like while managing its evolution and perhaps changing where you thought it was going when you started, there is deeper appreciation because you had to do more. Not needing someone else to confirm that I did a good job, setting and meeting my own standard, contributed to the satisfaction.
  • Freedom: Choosing where a project goes affirms and teaches individual agency. It also affords a responsiveness to the environment and task that give you better feedback about yourself in terms of how you learn and what you care about. Deciding the course and design of a project allows you to put more of yourself in it, which makes the project more reflective of you. The project becomes an object to think with, that you can see more of yourself in. The freedom of open projects helps a learner know themselves more. Open projects also free you from needing the approval of others, which I elaborate on below.
  • Agency: Though close to freedom, agency needs to be addressed more specifically. The open projects helped me better feel my own agency by forcing me to be my own teacher and decider of quality. With the qualitative analysis, I was dependent on someone else to affirm my work. I was dependent on hearing that, “good job,” as confirmation that I completed the task and that it was, in fact, good. My work was done for another, with another’s judgment serving as the decider for the decisions I made during creation. I was working under the question, “What will they think of this?” That almost makes it not my project. The open projects allowed me to decide their course, determine what quality looked like, and tinker with what it was. The question was, “what do I think of this?” I set my own constraints, which meant more ownership and greater satisfaction when I stepped back from my work. When I stepped back to look at what I did, I experienced a little wonder at the whole creation, which isn’t visible when you are working in it because you don’t exactly know where it is going.

Though these concepts are by no means new, novel, or ideas the course hasn’t exposed me to, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, these ideas represent the “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” I have heard and read these things, but now I understand them because I arrived at them myself through challenge and uncertainty. That’s why this short reflection is my project. It describes the tested beliefs that will follow me for the rest of my educational career, but more importantly, it recounts the change and iteration I want to mark my learning for the rest of my life.

Practically, in the classroom, I am going to stop issuing judgments on student work, pending the grade level. I don't want them searching for a good job. I will design more learning opportunities that are open to interpretation and facilitate the tinkering of students. I will also work on protocols for helping students recognize things they create as representations of themselves, as objects that represent their own world view and perspective, and that help a student in and out of their project to get a better view of their work and hopefully, marvel a little at what they can do. Through this, I realized I value wonder and agency more than the acquisition of skills that closed projects facilitate.