This letter is mostly for those of you whose students have recently turned in their proposals for their first project week – i.e. those whose students started new at Putney this fall. The rest of you are familiar with the process, and most of you have been to the project week presentation days, which give the best understanding of all.
Project week proposals are, in effect, grant proposals for the time between Thanksgiving break and winter break, and both the planning and the working time are key pieces of our educational program. Most students do two projects during the 10 days, at least one of which must be academic and tied to a course students are currently taking. Others do one double project. I urge all of you to come on December 13th ; it is really the only way to fully understand what project week is all about.
If you google Project Based Learning (PBL) you will find that it is a trend these days; among the three million entries are lesson plans, checklists, schematics, scholarly articles and YouTube “how-to” videos. Some of these are interesting, but most of them miss the point, or at least the point of what we are doing at Putney. Mostly PBL is done within the curriculum of a class, is designed by the teacher, and the outcome is pretty much known ahead of time. (Remember building a volcano in 5th grade science?) Most of these projects are recipe-based: students are given the instructions and ingredients ahead of time, and their success depends on how well they follow a predetermined path. I visited a new high school in California much touted for its project-based curriculum, and repeatedly saw the exact same outcome produced by each student in a given class.
Our students’ first task for Project Week is to figure out what they are curious about, what they want to learn how to do, and what they hope to accomplish. Having done that, a student must figure out how to schedule her time, what materials she will need, what teacher is best able to be the project advisor, and how best to share her work with others at the end of the project. A student needs to have thought all of these things through before writing a proposal; doing so requires a goodly amount of “executive function.” Executive function is the set of skills students with ADHD are supposed not to have, but in reality most people don’t have them until they get some practice. We know that 9th graders need a lot of support and coaching in their first project weeks, and many of them will do at least one group project. But we also know that if students never get to practice forethought, they can’t be expected to get better at it. Once the planning is done, and the project started, then the process of self-monitoring and assessment comes into play, along with a healthy measure of self-discipline. For students new to this and used to being told how to succeed, this process can be scary. A few panic as soon as it turns out that their predictions of how things would unfold were not very accurate, and it is at this point that the faculty advisor can step in to reassure and help them figure out how to get over whatever bump is in their way. Projects are pass/fail, and passing a project does not mean that things turned out exactly as you thought they would. If you knew exactly how to do the project ahead of time, we would think that perhaps you didn’t choose something challenging or new. If a student tried hard, and can accurately assess his own work, and learned a lot, even if it wasn’t exactly what he thought he would learn, and if he can explain what he did and what he learned, then a project was a success.
You will have a chance to talk with your children over Thanksgiving about their plans; feel free to ask them lots of questions and offer lots of advice. If you are like me, you will be envious of them – to have ten days to pursue something you really care about, and then share what you learned with your friends – it sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it?
All the best to all of you,