Diving Into Project-Based Learning? Heed these 7 Warnings

BEWARE. Creativity can be dangerous.
Dangerously awesome, that is.
You see, creativity is not immune to the challenges that bond forward thinkers and risk-takers to their authentic ideas and handiwork. Au contraire, my colleagues, the hazards of embarking on a journey with your students to demonstrate mastery of curricula and to showcase talent can be likened to skydiving from 13,000 feet out of a perfectly functional Cessna 182.
I mean, think about it. Should you stay seated, take a relaxing nap, and be safely guided by a knowledgeable, although somewhat boring, pilot to a pre-determined destination? But what lesson does that teach?
Ah, heck. That sounds too much like an industrial-aged classroom.
I say strap on a parachute, buckle up to a tandem guide, jump with fear in your gut and faith in your heart, and experience the real ride for yourself. Now that’s what a PBL classroom feels like…where creativity is always packed and ready to go.
So, if you are a skydiver, I mean teacher, aspiring to integrate project, problem and passion-based learning in your classroom, make sure you heed these seven warnings, lest fear suffocate your courage and you suffer plain sickness.

WARNING #1: Nerves Begin to Tingle with a Contractual Agreement

I’ll never forget the first time I skydived. I have to admit, I was wise. You know why? Because I called my wife from the hangar to share my free-falling intentions with her after I had signed the contractual agreement. There was no stopping me then. With adrenaline pumping through my veins and the potential of an impromptu divorce on my mind should I survive the 2 ½ -mile plunge to Mother Earth, I did it. I took a dive of faith and jumped out of a plane.
Pardon the stretch here, but a solid PBL assignment is not much different. Honestly, if both parties have at least one ounce of moxie and character about themselves, it’s really hard to turn back after inking individual John Hancocks to the academic contract.
Take a look below at a PBL contract offered to Studio 113 students after studying Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

WARNING #2: A Fear of Heights May Be Exposed

My skydiving guide was a pony-tailed, tattooed, and free-spirited man fueled by a circulatory system saturated with adrenaline. To him, a double espresso latte must have felt like a mild sedative. However, if it weren’t for his continuous and energetic reassurances as I watched my altimeter inch slowly to 13,000 feet, I would have allowed my newfound fear of extreme heights to suck the breath right out of me. Instead, my tandem instructor re-oxygenated me by providing a tailwind of encouragements.
However, the turbulence in this particular warning and extended metaphor is that the student for this PBL assignment was me, the teacher. You see, after witnessing talent such as the young musician in the video below, I caught myself wondering, “Am I good enough to lift learners to unimagined heights?” I surely hope so.

WARNING #3: Be Smart and Use All Resources

When the altimeter says it’s time to go, then it’s time to go, and nearly three miles up isn’t the appropriate time to forget the exiting procedures. Bound together by a tandem harness, my instructor and I awkwardly walked on our knees to the open door and prepared to dive. “Do you say a quick prayer each time you jump?” I nervously asked. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “Lord, let us live,” he continued with a soft chuckle.
And just like that, I was smart. I remembered my training, and I used all my resources. I pushed my hips forward, threw my feet behind my buttocks, arched my back, and pinched my shoulder blades.
Surprisingly enough, PBL projects can appear just as technical as falling from the sky. If you’re going to survive, and enjoy, the PBL ride, all resources must be used. So, when a student offers to use the iMovie app on his iPhone to create an action news skit, be smart and let him. Eventually, he will ask, “What’s the easiest way to present the movie to the class?” My suggested response is, “Let’s use a simple resource called Reflector by Air Squirrels.”
Check out these students’ funny news skit presented from a seemingly ubiquitous resource…the smartphone.

WARNING #4: Don’t Blink

This warning is simple. When you’re dropping from an airplane at 110 MPH for only one minute through a multitude of transparent clouds, don’t blink. Some art takes shape very quickly.
Much like this symbolic painting related to The Crucible.

WARNING #5: The Depth of Analysis Can Be Inspirational

With this warning, I struggle to find the words to convey the emotions I felt as I slowly and softly cascaded toward the landing zone under an outstretched canopy. Perhaps there are no words. Oh, but there were thoughts! Seriously. How could I not have weighty thoughts? Not since I experienced the two, most unrivaled gifts ever, the births of my son and my daughter, had I witnessed such majestic beauty. Mother Earth can put on quite a show and leave you long to contemplate her.
Brilliant thought and humble talent possess thought-provoking power, too. In fact, the gifted student below merged art with music to produce a melodic and inspirational presentation.

WARNING #6: Opportunities Abound

“Take the steering toggles,” my instructor said, “and give it a go.” I obliged, grabbed the handheld straps, and tugged down with my right hand. We jetted quickly down and to the right. So, I did likewise with my left, and the opposite happened. It was pretty darn cool. I was given an opportunity, and I took it.
Witnessing others take opportunities can be quite exhilarating, too. Take for example, the large group of students below who had a dream of staging a fashion show starring the clothing line of Elizabeth Proctor from The Crucible.

WARNING #7: Extra Effort Is Required

All right. I won’t sugarcoat it. Touching ground after a tandem skydive is a pain in the posterior. Literally. Since both greenhorn and instructor run the risk of tangling up their legs when landing, it is sometimes recommended to reconnect with Mother Earth in the manner opposite from how most people first meet the world. And this cheeky landing requires extra effort, especially when crazy amounts of adrenaline make your legs shake like a sharp-tongued but nonathletic English teacher after being locked in the octagon with Georges St-Pierre.
Speaking of grappling, take a look at this time-lapsed video of Studio 113 as students and teacher maneuver stage sections to transform the flexible classroom into a room fit for a fashion show.

Ahhh. Finally, you have landed. The PBL dust has settled, and you’re on solid ground.
Very shaky. A little soar. Much stronger.
And totally alive.
Nothing much to do now. Except gaze up at the sky and allow your newly found inquisitive thoughts lead you to one perplexing question: “Who was flying the plane anyway?”
No worries now, though.
Luckily, you’ve been warned.

John Hardison

John Hardison is an interactive facilitator of learning and blended learning specialist at East Hall High School (Studio 113 & EPiCC).

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Bryan Beaton

Brilliant work, John!
This is a clear, comprehensive, inspiring overview. I'll be sharing it with others.
Thanks for sharing what is obviously the fruit of passion and courageous innovation.

John Hardison

Thanks, Bryan. So glad you found this blog post helpful. I am definitely blessed with such talented students. They are amazing. Hope all is well. Blessings...

Lisa Sheehy

You've inspired me to try so many new things in the classroom. As a teacher I've stepped way out of my comfort zone with PBL and structures. When your students come to math they won't tolerate anything different! Thank you for inspiring kids and teachers by sharing your passion and gifts! You manage to brag on your kids, teach everyone something practical and maintain a servant heart all in one article. You rock John Hardison!

John Hardison

Wow! Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate you taking the time to comment. There is no doubt that your students will continue to have a blast and see math from a totally new perspective. I look forward to hearing of your and your students' many successes this year with math and PBL. I'm quite sure y'all will rock it out. Have a great school year. Many blessings...

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