Tag Archives: project based learning

How to Crush Any Large Project in 3 Easy Steps

By this point in the year, I am preparing to defend my thesis, and I’m feeling pretty good about my chances. It is amazing to think that I have worked on anything for this long, and I hope that everyone takes the opportunity in life to start and finish a project of this magnitude, although not necessarily for academic credit. Writing a cookbook, rebuilding a vintage car, constructing a greenhouse, or producing your own indie film, these are all noble goals worthy of our highest levels of attention. Short tasks are easy; we can prioritize minutes and perhaps hours, but how do you maintain that same drive and focus when the confines of your endeavor drag on for weeks and months? These three quick tips will hopefully give you the inspiration and tools you need to tackle your own large project.

The Worthiness Test (The Planning Phase)

If you are anything like me, you learn from doing. Not from being talked at, or theorizing, but from actually digging in, taking things apart to put them back together as something new, something you own. The art of doing is typically absent from most 21st century institutions of learning, but it remains that for many this is the easiest and most effective way to gain skills.

Before engaging in any large project, it is helpful to ask several questions before proceeding with any research or implementation. This is perhaps the most important stage of project development, and I cannot stress that enough. A brilliant idea and poor implementation can be excused occasionally, but not often is the reverse true: bad ideas are just that no matter how you dress them up. Some initial research may be necessary to determine feasibility or originality, but in this stage of the process we are concerned primarily with the raw idea of the project itself. Consider the following points before proceeding:

Will the Result Be Worth Your Effort?

There are millions of topics and millions of possible applications for our knowledge, but that does not mean that all of them are good fits for our skills. You must be passionate about your work, otherwise you risk breaking down in the doldrums of the project’s timeline. We can all listen to a single song for a lap around the track, or perhaps a mile, but could you run a marathon to this music without ripping your headphones out? Picking something you love is the easiest way to ensure that you will have an investment in seeing it through to the end.

 Can You See Down Rabbit Holes?

Rabbit holes or the occasional tangent are possibly the most detrimental threat to the success of any well planned project if followed blindly, but do not mistake their existence for a negative sign. Although you want to avoid following rabbit holes as much as possible after the initial planning phase, you should nonetheless see them, and the more the better. The existence of these rabbit holes is promising since it means that you have already found places on which to build your project further, in either future revisions or different projects. We are looking for offshoots, other ways to quickly leverage our knowledge and experience from the first successful project into an equally or more successful second project. Always be thinking about the big picture, and if you look around and see no rabbit holes, no future applications or ways to build on your idea, then chances are that it may not be worth pursuing in the first place.

What Do You Stand to Gain?

This may seem like a selfish question, but the answer need not be considered so because gain can be measured in different ways for different people. For the business minded, gain equals money, and lots of it. For scholars and researchers, this may mean credibility or increased research skills, but for the pure hobbyist, gain could mean little more than a good time.

Think seriously about why you are choosing to complete the project you have planned, and understand explicitly what skills you will gain from doing it. For example, when planning my thesis project, I knew that in some capacity I wanted to increase my knowledge of Antebellum American Literature to increase my functionality as a teacher and researcher, but I was also deeply interested in developing coding skills for web development. Beyond this was my innate desire to start something bigger than myself that would help students and teachers. As a result, I developed a project that would allow me to work towards achieving all three of these things. In essence, I measured my own personal gains in the following ways: increased content knowledge, improved technical skills, and a product that is open to the public with the sole intent of doing more good than I could do alone.

These equations will be different for different people, but be honest with yourself about what you want to get out of the experience and make sure to develop a project that will address these specific desires.

Celebrate Small Successes (The Implementation Phase)

Most people tend to celebrate the completion of a project in its entirety, when in fact we should be celebrating small victories along the way. Not that one final, beat all celebration isn’t in order after all is said and done, but to maintain the proper motivation and a focused attitude it is also necessary to celebrate the completion of smaller parts of a complex whole. Admittedly, this requires that the project be broken down into a system of smaller parts, which it of course should be—project managers know that all large projects are just a series of smaller, yet equally integral, projects. Before starting your work, break down the whole into pieces, and allow yourself to celebrate crossing each one of the list.

This is important for morale, but just as important for overall workflow. Nothing will slow a project down more than a bogged down section or chapter. I had my own moments like this when annotating Henry David Thoreau’s “Economy” from Walden, at a whopping 70+ pages, but sometimes there is nothing to do but to lock and load and celebrate when the dust settles.

By focusing on the small completions we are able to avoid the larger uncompleted project staring back at us at every turn. I faced this dilemma in writing my undergraduate thesis in 2010-2011. While the first chapter came easily, the next two were not so automatic, but much of it had to do with the fact that I focused on the writing process as a holistic phase instead of a process of segmented actions. There is too much to think about when conceptualizing an entire manuscript to write portions of it effectively. Start with your topic or idea for a chapter and complete that one section before moving on to the next.

Revision Should Start from Day 1 (Reflection and Revision Phase)

I tend to take a fairly literal interpretation of the word revision, as a re-seeing of things. This should not be a stage that you move to after the implementation phase, or an activity synonymous with fixing comma splices and formatting errors. Revision and reflection should be an integral part of implementation. Invariably we will all start projects with certain assumptions that will ultimately be disproved, and we must react to these instances or risk irrelevance. It is important to recognize that these moments of revision are inevitable, and we should embrace them as a way of making our work better. As I said before, doing becomes a way of knowing and learning, which entails also reacting to scenarios and situations that take us beyond our current systems of knowledge.

Completing large projects can be one of the most singularly rewarding experiences an individual can undertake. However, you must know that the road will not always be easy, especially if the road you’re on has had few previous travelers. Large projects can be a lonely and isolating experience if you allow them to be, as your friends and colleagues will quickly tire of hearing you discuss the same topic ad nauseum for months on end. To combat this, reach out to others who have been where you are now. They will surely understand and provide you guidance along the way. I hope that these tips will encourage you to pick a project and begin doing, using these helpful tips as a guide.


Online Education Spreads to High Schools

Although many Advanced Placement courses and grade level courses have been offered through online or distance models since the early 2000’s, Virginia has recently made a push to increase the number of online course providers that it allows to offer courses within the state. This represents a seismic shift in the way that people have conceived of public education. When many people are asked the point of public education or to name some of its benefits, they immediately jump to the following answer: socialization. While thinking of education in this way certainly has it benefits, at least in a 20th century context, to define public education in this manner in a 21st century environment is a dangerous proposition, especially considering the huge increase in virtual work environments, or what was once called telecommuting.

Learning or Socializing

Are we asking students to learn or become social creatures? I think that this is possibly the most prominent debate about the nature of school and how online education can fit into our current perceptions of public education. For the last 200 years, success, at least to some degree, meant learning how to play well with others. While this is still true, we must admit that the nature of play has changed drastically. We now live in a world where a student can make friends and create a following without ever leaving the house. 15 years ago we lived in a world where your physical identity and your virtual identity were two very separate entities, but now that distinction is quickly becoming blurred.

If we are asking students to learn, then online education, done well of course, may be our best option. This would allow students to use the tools that help them learn most effectively while individualizing their education to meet goals that are specific to their future plans. This does, however, eliminate much of the physical interaction that so many people seem to view as a necessity.

Of course being social, or at least being able to work with others to accomplish tasks, is an important skill, and I mean in no way to down play the importance of collaboration, but are the ways that we are asking students to collaborate in school at present really reflective of the ways they will be asked to collaborate as young professionals. I can look at my own experience in school and say that my public education did not prepare me to do the type of work that I am now doing. All of that I had to learn on my own, and judging the skills of many of the college students that I work with, I can say with certainty that Higher Education is only marginally better at preparing students to collaborate and work in the 21st century (I guess were lucky that we have another 88 years to work all this stuff out).

Shifting the Paradigm

It is becoming increasingly clear that there needs to be a shift in the paradigm of how we as an American public conceive of and administer educational experiences to our students. (Please Note: I said educational experiences because there is a huge amount of reciprocity involved in learning; it goes back to the old adage: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.) We need to foster an environment that appreciates inquiry and uses online methods of delivery to complement project based learning experiences.

Imagine for a moment the classroom of the future: each student is at his or her own workstation linked into a learning management system that the teacher has complete access to, and perhaps one student is watching a video, another is reading and article, the third is listening to a song, and the fourth is playing a video game, but all of them are learning the basic principles of photosynthesis. After the teacher verifies that 80% of the students have obtained an 80% mastery of the concepts, the whole class moves outdoors where the teacher asks the students to indentify several potential spots to plant a garden based on the basic needs of plants: nutrient rich soil, access to sunlight, and access to water. After that, well, they would plant some plants to test their hypothesis. This type of learning involves both concepts and application. So often we give students concepts with no opportunity to apply them to their lives. Imagine how connected a student would be to his or her learning when they, after a few weeks or so, could literally see the fruits of their labor.

In a world of high stakes testing and accountability, in addition to the already stretched budgets for technology and teachers, I understand that this is a lofty vision, but nevertheless feel compelled to explore the possibilities of this fully. If we are going to address the achievement gap within our own country, and begin to address the achievement gap that is even now developing between the U.S. and other nations, we are going to have to create more engaging experiences for or students. That may mean meeting them of their level and engaging them how they want to be engaged, which is becoming increasingly digital.

I’m sure that many critics would argue that we would lose some of what makes humans such social creatures, but I would simply reply that technology is nothing more than a tool to enhance social collaboration and learning, even the Greek root of the word teche simply means a way of doing something, a craft, or art (think technique). So if we look at technology at its etymological roots, we get the study of how to do things. Certainly there are dangers involved with staying constantly connected to multimedia (I’m thinking M.T. Anderson’s The Feed here), but part of our responsibility as educators is to teach students how to use technology more effectively. I think that we need to find a comfortable middle ground in education, between conservative and progressive, which can accommodate a cooperative mindset. Nothing has to be either/or,  and it could always be both, and those who say that’s an impossible task are thinking in terms of ‘can/cannot’ and not in terms of ‘how.’