I’m on the first leg of my journey to Shanghai and the Learning 2.011 Conference. I’m reading Ted Bayles and Ted Orland’s thought provoking book, “Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.” It’s a book I encountered while researching the origins of a story I included about creativity in my book, “Playing with Media: simple ideas for powerful sharing.” Bayles and Orland conclude the second chapter of their book with the following paragraph. They are writing about art making, but I think this advice applies equally well to project based learning (PBL) and truly student centered learning. They observe:

Control, apparently, is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous. What’s really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way. Simply put, making art is chancy– it doesn’t mix well with predictability. Uncertainly is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the pre-requisite to succeeding.

Two particular sentences in this paragraph stand out for me: “What’s really needed is… an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way.” What’s PBL if not a willingness to allow students to create, to discover, to “drive their own learning” and at times, and make mistakes on their way to “learning?” The final sentence stands out for me as well: “…tolerance for uncertainty is the pre-requisite to succeeding.” Are we comfortable with uncertainly? Are we willing to embrace the ambiguity which naturally is attached to projects which are open-ended and not fully defined at the outset?

Just as these dispositions are essential for those who create and seek to create ART, I contend these dispositions are essential for good teaching and good teachers. We cannot truly be “guides on the side” if we’re trying to direct every “turn of learning” for students like a traffic cop in the center of a busy intersection. We must leave the door to student choice open. This does not mean “anything goes” and a complete lack of boundaries. Rather, it means students have freedom to move within the confines of a project… and the choices they are allowed to make really matter in determining the direction and quality of their own learning.

I’m just 21 pages in, but already I can tell I’m going to love this book.

'Oil Painting Workspace' photo (c) 2005, Divya Manian - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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  • Christopher Reindl

    Hello. My name is Chris Reindl. I am a student in EDU 310 at the University of South Alabama. While reading your post “Keys to PBL and Student Centered Learning”, I truly began to understand the ties between allowing students to aid in their own education and creativity. I feel that it is very important that we as people allow our students to go on an intellectual journey. It makes school more of a fun adventure. Instead, so many teach for the written tests that one encounters in school, and not for the test of life. When I graduated from high school I had no direction and felt robbed of the opportunity to learn what I needed to survive in the real world. By giving students the tools to become more worldly citizens, we give them the critical thinking skills to succeed. 

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