Project Based Awesome: From Teaching to Facilitating

I want to admit something right from the start: I used to be a terrible teacher.

Well, OK, “terrible” might be a bit extreme, but I certainly wasn’t as good as I could have been. That is, until I started thinking in terms of designing thematic units, based on authentic learning inputs and outputs, utilizing technology and projects throughout the units.

I tried several different things throughout my 21 years in the classroom. Among other things, I tried teaching from the literature anthology (fresh out of college, without a clue what to teach) ... terrible.  I tried reading and writing workshop based on Nancy Atwell’s “system” … ehhh … not terrible, but not exactly transforming learning for my students. I tried project based learning (PBL) … now I was getting somewhere … but still, it just wasn’t quite right. All of these ways of teaching seemed to be lacking something.  I spent a lot of time teaching and grading.  Helping students pile up points towards their final grade. I offered mindless extra credit unrelated to the actual concepts and standards we were working towards.

While the workshop style seemed to engage students in analysis and discussion, it lacked a way of extending beyond the classroom and giving students choice in their learning.  PBL was fun but lacked focus. The projects the students did were just ways for them to show their learning at the end of a book or unit. I started to integrate technology, but really, it was just having the students create the same things they would have before, but with tablets or computers. Yeah, those “electronic bulletin boards” the kids made transformed their learning experience (#sarcasm). And I won’t even get into using the anthology. I was young and without a mentor of guidance in my classroom … I couldn’t have known any better.

So, what was missing?

Feedback, student ownership, choice, real world experiences … in a word, learning! I needed a better way.  I needed to move from a teacher to a facilitator of learning. Even more important, my students needed to move from collectors of points to learners. LEARNERS!  Learners? What a novel concept.

And really, that’s where Project Based Awesome comes in. It’s a way to blend the best of all of these ways of teaching and more. It encourages multiple types of inputs and outputs for students, student voice and choice, real-world learning experiences, critical thinking, integration of technology, and more.

But here’s the thing: nothing will change, no matter how innovative or groundbreaking or engaging, until we get beyond the idea of just gathering points for a grade. Unfortunately, that’s what the system has ingrained in all of us. Teachers, counselors, administrators, parents, and students. No one in the education system is immune to this way of thinking. Unfortunately, chasing points many times stifles creating a love for learning. As teachers we need to move from just being a purveyor of knowledge to a facilitator of learning. Everyone, from the teachers down to the students, needs to become comfortable with teachers releasing control, encouraging students to ask questions, think, create, and not just memorize and regurgitate answers.  This is how real learning happens outside of school. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of this in schools today. Project Based Awesome is one way to help move past just chasing points to earn grades to teachers becoming facilitators of thinking, reasoning, questioning, and real-world learning experiences.

Erin and I stumbled onto this way of unit planning and teaching in a totally organic way. It just kind of bloomed and took shape when we started planning together in a quest for a better way for students to learn and we never looked back.  Now we want to help other teachers and in turn, their students, by providing background, concrete projects/units, training, and a community of educators to learn with each other.  

If you’re diggin’ on this whole PBA thing, make sure you subscribe to our email list so you can get updated when a new blog gets posted by Erin or myself. You can also check out our podcasts and follow us on Twitter.

We look forward to you joining us on this little adventure and together transforming learning for thousands of students.

chris butlerComment