Frustration Gives Way to Creative Learning

By: Corey Johnson
5 August 2013

Research from Edutopia.org shows that project based learning (PBL) is successful at implementing the basic core academic requirements in a fun, collaborative, creative, and highly effective way. We had been informing our education clients for years that they needed to have flexible collaborative learning spaces and curriculum programs in place that foster this type of learning. But does it actually work? It was time for us to test all the talk with “walking the walk”.

Around a back-yard BBQ fire with some close educational friends, an idea emerged. The middle school teachers from Trinity Lutheran School in Kalispell, Montana had been challenged by their Principal to find a meaningful substitute for the study hall period. I happened to possess a project based learning curriculum from the Council for Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) for designing a School of the Future. This program, developed specifically for grades 6th – 8th, combines science, technology, engineering, math, and art in a multi-disciplinary creative process that takes learners from concept to solution. A semester long pilot project for Trinity’s proposed new high school of the future was implemented, and my commitment as facilitator was whole-heartily given.

Oh my gosh… what had we gotten ourselves into!  Easier in theory than application, we realized within the first two weeks that the teachers, students, and myself were completely out of our comfort zone. However, with change and challenge there arose new learning opportunities for all. So getting straight to the point, here are some of the primary lessons we collectively learned throughout our 5 months together:

  • PROVIDE CREATIVE STRUCTURE: Working in an open-ended project with group-discovery and undefined results is scary, especially if you haven’t been exposed to it before. Creating loose structure with intermediate goals and milestones is import, but as educators, letting the small teams of 4-5 students struggle and create without providing too much leading input was counter to anything we had done before. How did we eventually overcome this urge to take over? As facilitators we asked more questions and did more observing and listening. Instead of answering questions we directed them to resources and examples to research, and had them question whether their solution was meeting their goals. We also rotated from small groups more frequently. Training and arming students to become young architects and engineers and then completing a major project took multiple directions. It was nice having a curriculum to start with, but when the concept of “scale” was introduced it was apparent immediately that it was going to take more time and practice with individual instruction. We realized that flexibility to deviate from the curriculum was vital.
  • FLEXIBLE ENVIRONMENTS ARE REALLY NEEDED: Due to the creative nature of the curriculum, organization of time and space is crucial. We quickly realized that one 45-minute period wasn’t enough time at all. The students had to transition into small groups, re-arrange the classroom, get their projects out, pick up where they left off the previous class, create, innovate, clean-up, and be ready for the next class once the bell rang. It was just too short of a time span. Double periods are needed at a minimum. Pulling the classes together in the larger of the classrooms and having room to store projects, models, materials was also challenging. Working on Google Sketchup, one of their favorite 3-D architectural programs, required reserving the computer lab and making a trip down the hall, further fragmenting the resources. Laptops in the learning environment, messy places to work with tools, easily adaptable furniture, and cubbies to store models and materials would have been greatly appreciated, and made the time together more productive!
  • TEACHER COLLABORATION AND SUPPORT A MUST: As an architect I was trained, and naturally gravitated towards learning and working in a project-based process. However, everyone is wired differently. The 7th and 8th grade teacher, Joanne Cutler, was more structured with class management, assessments, keeping on task, and evaluating achievement. The 6th grade teacher, Rachel Schumacher, was in her first year of teaching and was flexible, enthusiastic, and excited about the possibilities! She was familiar with the technology tools and had actually taken some architectural classes during her education. The groups of students were as equally diverse in learning styles. No one style was more important or superior than the other. Recognizing, carefully grouping, and then utilizing each team members learning and teaching style is an essential aspect of project-based learning. Without the support of the Principal, David Topp, and the willingness of the teachers to experiment with something new, and some dedicated volunteers this pilot project would not have been as successful.

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Together we tried something new. Sometimes, days we struggled, and some days we couldn’t wait to get started. Mrs. Cutler admitted that prior to this pilot project her students typically work individually, sometimes in pairs, but rarely worked in groups. The students agreed that working together in groups is difficult; compromises had to be made, personality conflicts had to be overcome, and some of their teammates just didn’t follow through. But isn’t that an important part of learning? Isn’t that the struggle that we all deal with in our day to day jobs and careers?

After 5 months of challenging and creative work, the student’s final school presentation took place in front of 75 of their peers, parents, and school community. With pride and enthusiasm, the team’s discussed their design’s sustainable strategies, and highlighted unique features such as roof garden swimming pools and underground campus passage ways for Kalispell’s snowy environment. So would the teachers and students continue with project-based learning? We are excited to hear that in the years to come Trinity Middle Schoolers will be working on projects such as boat designs, robotics, culinary arts, and ultimate classroom makeovers.

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