Thursday, 27 August 2015

WALT: be a Big Project guide

Big Projects and me, or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the fail

Disclaimer: Still really worried about failing though.

Big Projects are an important aspect of the way we teach and learn at HPSS. It is one of the things that, in my mind, really sets us apart. It is also the aspect of teaching where I find I am learning the most. Often this learning is the most valuable kind: learning through failure. It has given me an appreciation for Big Projects as an institution, but also showed me the value of failure in learning, for both my students and myself.

The last round and deflating hopes

The last round of Big Projects, recently finished, involved setting up business and raising money for the charity Kidscan. I will be the first to admit that the project ideas from my students were... ambitious.

One group wanted to produce a smartphone case which would charge one's phone with a solar panel and onboard battery. The solar panel was soon scrapped in favour of style, the battery was soon scrapped due to lack of mass-production ideas and also because the prototype didn't work, and finally the style was scrapped because these kids have absolutely no sense of style. I feel like they should learn these things in an English module somewhere.

Another group wanted to produce a toaster-like charger for iPhones. I'm almost glad they never managed to make them. I wanted to spare them the lack of market interest. In fact, we did a survey of market interest, which was itself interesting. In a show of resilience, they pushed on regardless.

Finally, the last group wanted to produce a set of jigsaw-like circuitry pieces which could be taken apart and recombined to make different circuits. Each piece would have a function, and the way you joined them together would effect the way certain components, like LEDs or motors, would work. This would be a winner if we got it off the ground, if the very similar 16-piece set which someone tried to sell the school for just under a grand was any indication. That grand would have been all profit, by the way - the components themselves range from a few cents to a few dollars. What could have been...

Snatching learning from the jaws of defeat, which is some sort of canine in this metaphor apparently.

As time progressed, it became more and more clear that nothing was going to be made, no profit turned and no funds donated to Kidscan. We are a school, however, and the essential aspect of a school is not that it raises money for charity, but rather provides learning opportunities for its students. I asked them to tell me what they had learned from this whole experience, and the responses were rather cheering.

The majority of responses were about teamwork. Some learned how to get others in their team to stay on task rather than take naps. Some learned the importance of planning time wisely. Some learned the importance of good communication the hard way. Many of these arose from mistakes the students made as they worked, or struggled to work, with their teams.

Other responses were about more technical details. Some learned the benefit of market research. Some learned budgeting techniques and being aware of cash flow. Some learned circuitry, or programming. These sorts of things give me hope that we will find some really authentic assessment in the future, as NCEA standards fall out of the learning which Big Projects encourage.

As for myself, I learned a great many things. I learned the importance of keeping a balance between structure and planning and just-in-time responsive teaching, and I think I have made progress in understanding where that balance lies. I have learned about managing a group dynamic, and making sure everyone has something important to do, but without me giving the instructions. I have learned how to enable students to find their own tasks, without relying on an authority (myself or a student leader) to tell them what to do next. I have learned the importance of planning for failure, and to allow plenty of time for testing and refining, implicit phases of projects which the students tend to de-emphasise, which gives them the comforting illusion that they have plenty of time.

My forthcoming blog post will be a reflection on this current round of Big Projects. This one was meant to be that, but now I need to go eat something and consume caffeine lest time runs too slowly. Also I promised Ros I would publish something.