My teaching partner and I have spent a great deal of time talking about what went right and what went wrong with the Apocalypto Project. We’ve also spent a great deal of time talking with our students (casually and through a seminar) and they expressed significant frustrations, many of which are described below.
As is typical in a project, some of our biggest complaints were centered around group selection. At the start of the project each student submitted an index card listing their perceived strengths/weaknesses, a few people they would prefer to work with, and a few people they absolutely do not want to work with. From there, my teaching partner and I deliberately arranged groups that were a balance of student choice, common sense, and individual abilities. However, I place very little blame on the process of group selection. I believe that many of the frustrations students experienced (and expressed) about their partners were a result of how we divided up responsibilities within the group – not in the groups themselves.
Schools of Thought
In my mind, there are two very different schools of thought when it comes to organizing a project based classroom. The first is specialization of labor where each student chooses (or is assigned) a unique task that in some way contributes to the greater project. This specialization can be organized at a group or whole-class level. My favorite example is set in a classroom organizing a play. With specialization of labor a given student may be building a set, writing a script, making a costume, or acting. Each student has a fundamentally different responsibility and thus a fundamentally different experience and learning outcome. Some teachers try to assuage this outcome by having each student complete a more comprehensive (but much smaller ) simulation of the project before the more authentic collaboration begins. Nevertheless, the final exhibited piece is a product of specialists.
The competing view is that students should experience a project in a substantially similar way. This may mean that each element of the project is collaborative (they all contribute to the script, the set, and the acting) or that they create things individually or even some hybrid of the two. All students emerge from the project having shared in responsibilities and having similar learning outcomes. One significant advantage of this method is that students begin their next experience (be it the next project or next grade) with a more equitable footing. It would be very easy, under the former model, for a student that’s ‘good with their hands’ to end up in a specialization where they continue to hone what their good at but emerge lacking in some other skill (like writing).
This is part of a much larger conversation about student learning (and perhaps even about economic/political systems) and is something that I think about a lot when planning projects. I suspect that it’s also closely tied to the type of project being developed. A project with a single shared product or outcome (i.e. Apocalypto or a class play) may require specialization of labor where more individualized projects may be more flexible.
As can be seen in the Apocalypto project description, we chose a hybrid of specialized labor. Our students went through a preliminary process as individuals but the final exhibited work was done within these assigned roles(in which all activities and assessment were based):
- Master Machinist (manages and modifies mechanism file, in charge of construction)
- Master Graphic Artist (poster, glyphs, image processing, converting physics manifesto)
- Master of Humanities (research paper abstracts)
- Master of Physics (performs calculations, makes the physics manifesto)
- Master Journalist (documents the process and markets the exhibition) [only present in groups of 5]
Where we Went Wrong
The work groups did in this final stages of the project dwarfed that which was done individually and the workload was not divided evenly between groups. The machinists shouldered the majority of the workload and were completely overwhelmed by both the technical difficulty of the project as well as the sheer workload. Many of the machinists stayed regularly until 6pm at night, came in on weekends, and even came in during thanksgiving break to work. While other roles had the potential to be somewhat challenging (should a student be so motivated) they were much less symbolic in our culture. Our culture quickly became immersed and obsessed with the success of the mechanisms and this only added to the stress load tolerated by our machinists. Many of the students not directly responsible for the mechanism became less engaged as the project went on and when we tried to spread the workload out more evenly we found that the technical skills our machinists had acquired thus far had set them apart from their peers. So much so that work on the mechanisms become, in all practical aspects, inaccessible to a significant portion of our students. This was not only a problematic learning environment but we were worried that it would create hostility within groups.
Each student group was responsible for designing and fabricating a mechanisms but that is just a piece of the overall finished product. The infrastructure to support the mechanisms also needed to be designed and fabricated. The initial intent was to identify students needing additional challenge and to involve them with this design. However, as the enormity of the project set-in, these students quickly became inaccessible. The precision and scale required for the infrastructure was significant and it turned out that I had to design and fabricate that infrastructure in my free time. As an engineer, carpenter, and lifelong tinkerer – this was an extreme challenge for me. I spent well over 100 hours outside of school designing, sourcing parts, and fabricating this several hundred pound behemoth. These were hours that were NOT spent bettering my instruction for the next day, following-up with struggling students, or resting. And while a part of me enjoys these obsessive spurts of innovation, it was not an ideal environment for great teaching.
In the end I hope that the infrastructure I produced was merely the stage for student work and that I did not turn it into a ‘dad did my project’ type scenario.
At our exhibition, four mechanisms were in some state of incompleteness (not counting those that broke during exhibition) and a great deal of tears were shed that night. And not a single mechanism was incomplete due to a lack of effort. Does this mean that the project was too difficult? Or is failure just evidence of an authentic challenge? I don’t know that this is my question to answer.
What I do know is that after exhibition, after grades were in, and while we had moved onto other things – students were still working on completing their mechanisms. Two have since finished and mounted their mechanism. Just this last Monday though, 6 months past the finale, at his insistence, a student spent his first two days of summer working on his mechanism with me in class.
Going into the project we knew that we were not good at documenting process. Our projects tend to be ever-changing and neither of us are the type to stop mid-day to document what happened or take a picture. Our intent with creating the ‘Journalist’ role in groups was to circumvent our shortcomings but the best thing we did was to institute project binders. Students were required to keep all documentation in a formal binder and this helped tremendously in both student organization and our ability to look back at what we did. Now we just need to get better at our own documentation (I’m writing this 6 months after the completion of the project – long after I’ve forgotten the most meaningful insight).
Team Teaching & Collaboration
While my partner and I are ultimately responsible for our own content, a great deal of our innovation stemmed from working together. We are lucky to both have the ability to cross the curriculum divide. I am a pretty good writer, editor, and I enjoy writing. He is a competent builder and has a good eye for aesthetics. Because of this overlap, we are interested in (and able to) help shape and innovate the others curriculum. For example, my work in deconstructing student theories helped students to iron out inconsistencies and improve their abstracts while Mike’s builders instinct led him to be the leader in laser engraving images at our school and to spur the innovation of the wedges found throughout the wheel. This project evolved a great deal from it’s initial conception and a significant portion of those evolutions took place through casual conversations between my teaching partner and I.
This project did not have a right answer. Each and every mechanism was one of a kind. My most common answers to student questions were things like: “seems reasonable, try it”, “I have no idea”, or “I’ve never done this before”. The beauty was that we didn’t know the answers – we were solving everything together. The fact that my teaching partner and I were equally willing to experiment, fail, and try again created a culture of persistence and innovation that we are extremely proud of.
Although we tested (and maybe even exceeded) student limits on this project, each and every student has fond memories of what we accomplished together. In the end, students bound together to create something that is receiving national recognition and they are extremely proud of what they accomplished. Even students that openly hated the project while it was underway reflect back on it as a significant period of personal growth. Parents have even remarked that their children are significantly different people having gone through that projects. More confident, more persistent, less willing to back down when facing adversity.
After this experience we went into our next project Piracy Based Learning with a few things in mind:
- Although individual responsibilities need to be clear (to avoid the ‘group grade’ mentality, students need to be involved in the whole process. We cannot have one student responsible for engineering and another responsible for writing.
- For our own sanity (as well as the kids) we need to think a bit smaller and let the students that struggled on Apocalypto have some chances for more success. We also need to better scope any pieces of the project that may fall on the teachers shoulders (to make sure we don’t end up single!).
- We REALLY want to try to recreate the authentic collaboration between disciplines where they are completely reliant one achother for project completion.
- We want to reach our to our community and pull in some adult world connections in the form of expert speakers.