It’s a late Wednesday evening and my facilitator team has just put the final touches on the ‘principles of entrepreneurship’ project.

Students will each take on a business concept and see it through to completion; using revenue raised to help fund cleft palate surgeries.

We will incorporate math and statistics for market research; economics for looking at business growth and projected profits; language for the business proposal and presentation; and art/music for the marketing campaigns.

At least that’s OUR plan…

And then the plan changes the minute students walk in the door the following Monday.

What wasn’t part of the plan was what to do when kids couldn’t come up with a business idea? What to do when nobody wanted to partner up with a difficult personality? What to do when businesses failed? Or couldn’t raise enough money to even get them off the ground? What to do when planned excursions got canceled because of acclimate weather?

You see, there’s a big difference between how we think projects will go as project planners, compared to how they actually go. 

So how as student-centred practitioners do we find success in an environment that isn’t linear, straightforward and static?  

I put this question out to a wide community of practitioners. Here are their top 10 tips:

“Let students be the instigators of ideas” (Bill Brant):

While it is important to have a driving question and general focus for the project, the more we let students drive it with their own ideas- from creative solutions to final product ideas, the more authentic and far reaching the project will become. The project will also feel community owned.

“Process is more important than outcome” (Kyle Wagner):

Remember that the point of project-based learning is not to create some shiny final product (although that is an added bonus); our purpose is to develop reflective practitioners, able to take skills developed in the project while beyond its completion date. Through journals, reflection and consistent check-ins, students will develop habits of mind that they can take to new learning experiences.

“Learn as you go, and LET it GO” (Kyle Wagner):

It’s scary to launch project- based experiences that require skill sets in which you don’t possess. When we launched students into creating businesses, none of us teachers had created businesses before. But rather than see this as a limitation, we used this as a strength! We were learning alongside students. For skills we lacked, we outsourced to parent and community experts. This made the project far more dynamic and enjoyable

“It’s ok to pivot half-way, or even on the last day!” (Mark Barnett):

As the drawing above suggests, we have to be able to live with flexibility and uncertainty in projects. The best way to do that is to have a clear outcome and problem/ provocation to solve, and feedback structures built in along the way to allow for new ideas and direction. Support students as individuals or groups during these check-in times, and allow them to pivot knowing that each come with their own skill sets, ideas and pace of work.

“Give students poetic license to create a final product different than the one you imagined” (Kwaku Aning):

This tip relates to the last one. As an avid writer/ musician, I know many of my final products are going to end up as written pieces. But for a very kinesthetic, hands-on learner, a written product is torture! Be willing to work with and support a number of final product ideas. Remember, the project is NOT about the final product, but about the deeper understandings students reach from solving a real problem.

“Build a community and culture where EVERYONE stands together and looks out for each other” (Benjamin Fraud):

We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ The same applies to a project-based experience. The best planned strategies for a project will fall flat if you haven’t built up the culture to support them. Build a culture where risk-taking, creativity, and divergent thinking can flourish. And most importantly, MODEL it yourself!

“Expand your definition of ‘Beautiful Work'” (Loni Bergqvist):

By nature, many of us are perfectionists. We want final products to be beautiful, flawless and without faults. But it’s important to remember that ‘beautiful’ is not always best, and that kids generally have a different definition of what constitutes as ‘beautiful.’ To a kid, ‘beautiful’ might be some paint splattered on a canvas; or an audio recording with a friend laughing in the background. It’s more important that your projects communicate a journey/story than they do a ‘pursuit for perfection.’

“Plan for learning, not for teaching” (Mark Mac):

We all have curriculum to cover. As a Humanities Teacher, I had to teach students about the Bill of Rights, the difference between physical and political geography, major events in history, the 8 characteristics of civilisation, etc. But when I used these concepts to drive a project, they always fell flat. I was ‘planning for the teaching.’ Instead, when I planned projects around authentic problems for students to solve, and checked off curriculum standards as students addressed them, results learning was far greater. I was ‘planning for learning.’

“Plan for students to go DEEP with concepts” (Dave Strudwick):

Similar to the last tip, view projects as a chance to go DEEP with a few concepts, rather than shallow with several. You can go DEEP by providing multiple opportunities for feedback, and connecting students to experts in the community; better able to support them in producing meaningful and engaging work. Continue to remind students throughout the process how far they have come!

“Be JOYFUL in the bits of chaos” (Mark Salata):

As Mark Salata, an expert practitioner suggests, adopt an attitude of ‘What can we learn from this?’ Rather than an attitude of, ‘What can we do to prevent this from ever happening again?’ Projects are going to be messy- especially as you begin sharing ownership of the project with students. Embrace the chaos and allow your students to fail fast, and fail forward. Embracing this chaos early on will help you begin to fine tune and gain more clarity in the end.

In a year filled with uncertainty from a global pandemic, social distancing, and social unrest, there could not be a better time to create learning experiences that help students embrace and be comfortable with that uncertainty.

ps. Do you have any ideas to add to this list? Respond in a comment and I will be sure to add them!