Wisdom Begins with Wonder

A subtle epiphany – over-planning kills engagement (PBL Series Part 1)

Epiphanies don’t always come as a lightning bolt; shattering your world with sound and fury.  Instead, they subtly infiltrate your consciousness.

One day, an idea quietly glides down, alights on your shoulder, and whispers in your ear.  You look up and say, “Why didn’t I realize this before?”

almost got it... next time around...

almost got it... next time around...

I’ve been chasing my tail for years, doing thematic units culminating in “real world” projects.  The themes were relevant and rigorous and the projects often had an authentic audience.  Many kids loved it.  Yet, somehow, it never quite felt right.

I’d begin an investigation with some sort of end in mind and throw activities, labs, multimedia, mini-lessons, mini-projects, etc. at my students.  At the end, I’d say, “now you have to do Project X to show me that you learned all the stuff we did the last 6 weeks.”

Kids would look at me like there were lobsters crawling out of my ears.

The problem was that it was my project, not theirs!

Sure, there were successes, but now I realize that the best units were those that I hadn’t really planned.  When I had the guts (or the lunacy) to bring the students in on the process organic, collaborative projects were born.

Exhibit A - Biodiesel Investigation, 2007.  I introduced my students to biodiesel and said, “what should we do with this knowledge?” They suggested we present a plan for using biodiesel in our buses to the school board.  We did, and the students were phenomenal.

Exhibit B - In 2008 and 2009, I reprised the biodiesel project without student input and the kids struggled.  Their hearts clearly weren’t in it.

This is a microcosm of my early teaching years.  Then I had my subtle epiphany: the more detailed and scripted the unit plan, the less engaging the unit.

My next post - Why  this approach didn’t work

Photo cc license by timekin via flickr


2 comments ↓

  • #   Chris on 09.13.10 at 4:28 pm     

    A perfect description of the challenges of teaching ChemCom – cool integrated units that are not student generated feel awkward. Answering questions the students never asked.


  • #   Mr. Rice on 09.13.10 at 7:20 pm     

    That’s the perfect way to describe it – “answering questions the students never asked.” I know exactly what you mean – and the result is that you end up back in the realm where traditional educational lesson design usually goes:

    “Today you’re learning this stuff because I think you should and I don’t care if you get why you’re learning it.”


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