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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Being Divergent with Project-Based Learning

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is both tantalizingly promising and easily misunderstood. Even experienced educators with a complete understanding of the promise of performance assessments and student-centered learning can quickly lose sight of these lynchpins in the attempt to create projects that meet state standards, and engage students. We suddenly discover that we have established a project goal so concrete and specific that a student’s best chance for success is to be supremely compliant and stifle any urges to be creative.

This can be avoided through leveraging a divergent thinking lens in the classroom. Divergent thinking in the classroom is when a teacher provides a prompt or challenge with given guidelines and lets the student determine the outcome. Divergent thinking work is endemically difficult to plan in advance, which frightens many an organized teacher. From “divergent” we get “diverse,” a word which ably describes the wide range of outcomes in well-structured, divergent PBL. Intimidating though this variety may be it is a hallmark of something spectacular. How do you know you are requiring the safer, right-answer-oriented convergent thinking? When you can easily envision success. Divergent thinking is as uncertain as it is audacious.

My own entrée into “divergent” group projects came from outside of the traditional school day. As a teen, I was involved in Odyssey of the Mind, a team-based creative problem-solving program that culminates in competitions. As participants, my teammates and I were fully engaged, constantly learning – and always astounded by what we could produce based on a simple challenge with a few limits. As an adult, I have coached Odyssey teams and even served on non-profit boards to run the program, but it wasn’t until many years of experience that the lightbulb went off: the same principles that impressed me about Odyssey could inspire a host of fantastic learning experiences. Odyssey and similar programs—like Future Problem Solvers, Destination Imagination, First Lego League and even Maker’s Spaces—are typically enrichment opportunities, but this meant that too many students were missing out. Students who gravitate toward these programs after school likely needed them less than my other students, who could most benefit from learning how to think outside the box.

In my classroom, I have seen previously-reluctant students absorb Shakespeare—and a host of important state standards—by setting a favorite scene into a different time period and producing a humorous performance. As an administrator, I’ve seen staff teach math application through open-ended projects and history through creative outputs that ranged from a docu-drama to a walking tour. When I introduced a creative, project-based theme to my summer program, we saw students engineering spaceships and designing future societies with junk drawer materials and some engineering basics. No two projects, when divergent thinking principles are embedded, are ever the same—and this makes assessment something it often is not: FUN!

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So how do educators go about planning high-quality, divergent project-based learning? As a classroom educator and administrator, I borrowed the following best practices from my experience with enrichment programs:

  • Start with some examples. First, spend some time perusing the challenges found in enrichment programs like Odyssey of the Mind and Future Problem Solvers—many of which are available online—for inspiration. Then look for established project-based learning units (like in the Buck Institute’s archive) and search for ones that allow for divergent thinking.
  • Create high-quality rubrics. It’s easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but a high-quality project-based learning unit does not eliminate goals and standards just to avoid a right-answer orientation. In fact, the very limits placed on the project are typically what inspire creativity. If students know what they’re required to do, they’ll feel safer taking risks in other areas.
  • Use complex but accessible challenges. Multi-layered challenges will inspire hard work in students—as long as they can relate to the challenge in some way and can access necessary resources. And if you can’t figure out what a “right” answer is, you’ve probably done well creating a project that doesn’t have one.
  • Scaffold as needed. Some students may not be ready to tackle the challenge without guidance. Assist the different groups as needed in establishing action plans, or break a complex unit into discrete parts for individuals or groups that need it. Helping some students tackle the problem does not mean you are solving it for them.
  • Don’t give answers, ask questions. It’s tempting for teachers to give hints or suggestions when students are stuck, but when the ideas are the students’ own, the project much more meaningful. Ask open-ended questions instead to inspire deeper thinking.

The going may be tough at first, but there are many advantages. When students are given voice and choice they’re taking ownership of their learning. And – perhaps even more appealingly - divergent-thinking project-based learning is engaged learning at its finest, leading to a decrease in misbehaviors. And for teachers, the often-mundane task of summative assessment becomes an adventure - tethered by a prompt and rubric and limited only by the bounds of student imagination.