John Spencer - Reflecting
It was twelve years ago when I sat down with a journal and began debriefing my first full year of going project-based. I had a list of what went well, what went poorly, and what things I wanted to try out the next year. As I jotted down my reflections, I mentioned two projects that I wanted to do the next year: a documentary project and a service learning project.
A few weeks later, I attended a conference session on project-based learning, where the facilitator said, “All of your projects should come from your students. Ask them to develop the essential questions. Ask them to generate ideas.” I sat there in my seat, nodding affirmatively. After all, for the entire year, I had asked students to join our Student Leadership Team (open to any student who wanted to attend) where we met once a week to plan out our projects and redesign our classroom systems.
I thought, “Yeah, that’s right. The projects should connect to student agency.”
The speaker continued, “Never teach the same project twice. Every year should be a fresh year with a fresh start.”
I remember my mentor teacher, Brad, had given me similar advice. “Burn your lesson plans. It keeps things from getting stagnant.”
So, I decided not to repeat any projects. I’m not going to plan any projects. I’m going to ask students for their input instead.
But then, when our Student Leadership Team met, they asked about certain projects. They had heard about some of the projects from the previous students and they were eager to get started.
“Will we get to film a documentary?” a boy asked.
I shook my head. “Let’s try something new.”
“But it is new. It’s new to us,” a girl responded.
She was right. There’s nothing wrong with repeating a project from one year to the next. It’s not new to you but it is new to your students. While the project might not work perfectly with a new group, it might still work. In fact, it might work better. Abandoning an idea simply because you’ve taught it before sounds noble but it’s actually pretty selfish. It makes it about you and your sense of being innovative instead of focusing on what students need.
“Keeping things fresh” is less about new ideas and more about new students and new dynamics and new connections. It’s about the human element that makes every single learning experience distinct.
So that year, I decided to repeat some of our best projects from the previous year. The next year, I did the same. In fact, in my twelve years in the classroom, I think we filmed documentaries at least seven times. I did Wonder Day projects for eight years. We did Geek Out Blogs for nearly a decade.
Redefining Innovation from “New” to “Better”
In our book Empower, I sketched out the following flow chart.
But here’s the thing. Sometimes the status quo works. Socratic Seminars have been around since antiquity (in some form or another). Choice-based silent reading was one of my favorite memories from school and guess what? It’s still pretty awesome. Journals are great. When our technology has grown obsolete, we’ll still find creative power in sketching out ideas on pen and paper:
Old-school materials still matter. We still need vintage tools – the kind of hands-on learning that actually requires your own two hands. Yes, there’s value in trying new apps and programs and gadgets. But there’s also power in prototyping with duct tape and cardboard.
If we’re constantly experimenting and always trying new things, we end up teaching every lesson in beta but never actually perfecting our craft. Yes, we want to be innovative. However, we also want to figure out what works. Teaching is one part “best practices” and another part “next practices.” When a teacher says, “I never want to repeat a project,” there’s the risk of being pulled away by the latest trends without ever anchoring into the things that actually work.
I’ve come to realize that innovation is about “better and different” rather than “flashy and new.” Sometimes better and different means borrowing ideas from the past. Sometimes it means going low-fi. Sometimes it means iterating and improving on the projects you’re already doing.
A Strategy for Assessing the Year’s Projects
Summertime is a chance to reflect on our classroom projects. I typically think through the following categories:
- Failed experiments: These are the projects that straight-up tanked. I think of our Civil Rights Museum project that students had zero interest in completing because we had no real purpose or authentic audience. Or the Fantasy Football math project that didn’t actually align well to the standards.
- Mash-ups: These are the projects that I might want to do again but I would want to combine them. For example, I combined the service learning and documentary projects with a blogging project to do our Project Social Voice unit where students engaged in community needs assessments, multimedia creation, and advocacy. A year later, I got to share this project in a talk I did at the White House Future Ready Summit. Although the White House experience was unforgettable, it was nowhere near as powerful as the month-long experience of student voice and choice as they engaged with their community.
- Revise: This is the kind of project that I would repeat again but it requires some serious revision. Often, it requires an entire overhaul. Here, I would think through specific ways to change the structures and systems within the project. Our mural project was an example of this. We decided to do a color mural and change the scaling process and the sketching process to allow for more students to participate.
- Refine: These are the epic projects that worked well but you will ultimately want to tweak to improve.
After going through the projects, I would typically create a chart for projects.
The PBL Journey
We’re all on a PBL journey, whether you’ve been using a PBL approach for decades or you just launched your first project this semester. As you reflect on your journey, you will always need to experiment and try new approaches. If you don’t, you grow stagnant. But you’ll also need to figure out what works for you. Repeating the same project year after year doesn’t make you lazy. It makes you smart. It doesn’t make you less innovative. It makes the learning timeless. Because every year is a fresh start with a new group, a new context, new tools, and new insights. In the end, there is no such thing as a “repeat” project from year to year because classrooms are dynamic and teaching is relational. What you get, instead, are new iterations and new insights that will help you refine your craft and improve your teaching. That’s the beautiful part of the journey. Sometimes you fail forward. Sometimes you experiment. But sometimes you walk into a project saying, “I got this.” And you do.
Follow my Facebook page for my latest articles and some of my favorite curated resources from other. Also, you might be interested in my YouTube Channel, where I create sketch videos for teachers. Finally, if you're interested in having me do a keynote or workshop on project-based learning or design thinking, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out the form on my speaking page.