Head of School Blog: Project Runway

One of my many secret vices is that I am a long-time and devoted fan of the show “Project Runway,” in which host Heidi Klum guides a collection of aspiring fashion designers through a series of weekly challenges. My favorite episode each season is invariably the “unconventional materials challenge,” which requires our would-be fashionistas to design high-end avante garde ensembles from materials like pet supplies, Hallmark cards, candy, burlap potato sacks, even items mined from junkyards or grocery stores. I am always in awe of what the designers dream up and bring to life.

In certain contexts, the term “project,” has a negative connotation. To suggest that something, or worse yet, someone, is a project is to imply that there is something that needs to be fixed and that fixing it is going to be a lot of work. But in the school context, there is nothing more satisfying than a well-designed project, and this week I had the chance to observe two, one in middle school arts, and the other in upper school math.

This weekend, it was my distinct pleasure to attend “Hotel of Dreams,” twice! As you can imagine, as a parent and an educator, I’ve been to a lot of school plays, many quite good and a few virtually indistinguishable from professional productions. What sets our annual middle school endeavor apart, however, is that is student-driven. Under the skillful and dedicated guidance of Ms. Prosser (who also happens to be an alumna) and with help from Mr. Bradley, our students crowdsource an original concept, talk out story elements like plot, character, setting, conflict, and resolution, contribute to its writing, casting, and blocking, watch as a different set of students design and construct the set, lighting, sound. Even the program is student-produced. And along the way, these kids collaborate, think critically and creatively, and solve problems (and boy are there problems!). In the end, it’s not a play or performance we saw this weekend; it was a project.

A very different project unfolded this week in math class. Mr. Lott posed a question to his tenth graders: “In any given two-week period, what is the probability that someone in the state of California would feel an earthquake?” Beyond that, he offered little to no guidance other than the expectation that groups were to present their answer and more importantly, much more importantly, the method and resources by which they came to it. Groups began by dividing up the labor. Some groups divided the state into thirds, some into fourths, one even into eighths. Most went to the USGS’s “Did you feel it?” site. Population density was accounted for this way and for that, some factored out repeats, some had maps, others spreadsheets. In the end, the four groups came to four very different answers. Do you want to know what the real answer is? I cannot tell you because Mr. Lott never told me (or the students!). Apparently, the answer was NOT the point of the project!

While researching what’s commonly referred to as “Project-Based Learning,” I came across an infographic that posed the question, “What happens when students own their learning?” Scattered around it were a number of suggested answers: They become problem solvers. They cultivate cool geeky interests. They view mistakes as opportunities. They learn to experiment. They become explorers. They are self-directed. They are ready for the global creative economy. They become systems thinkers. They develop iterative thinking. They learn to think outside the box. They develop a growth mindset. They learn project management.

Mr. Lott’s tenth grade math students, Ms. Prosser’s middle schoolers, our student interns in Woods Hole, seniors in world cultures history class, and the students who planned last weekend’s incredible Gala are just a few our school’s many project managers. Even the strategic planning process, which we will be undertaking in the coming year, will be the latest in a long line of community projects at our school. Done right, with the input and investment of our many stakeholders, our final product will certainly have great value, but if our experience mirrors that of Mr. Lott’s amateur seismologists, Ms. Prosser’s thespians, or Ms. Klum’s designers, the process will be just as valuable as the plan it yields.

Perhaps, then, instead of viewing a project as a noun--something broken or incomplete, the fixing of which is going to be a lot of work--we should consider project as a verb, accent on the second syllable…to project: to peer into the future, imagine what we could make happen, and make it so.

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