What makes a good project?

Having spent the last few months developing a new project I set myself the task of identifying the most important questions we have been asking ourselves as we have refined our ideas. I am using the word project to encompass any useful significant endevour – be it educational, entrepreneurial, creative or better still all three.

"Disrupt the Pattern" by cszar from flickr

"Disrupt the Pattern" by cszar from flickr

#1 Will the project disrupt and confuse?

Innovations, learning and creativity should involve a bit of disquiet along the way. I am not referring to a willful lack of direction or a conscious obscureness; I mean that a project should challenge, provoke and unsettle in some way. Then when the dust settles, we will all have learnt something.

#2 Is there potential for failure?

The entrepreneurial sector and that of education often feel like disconnected worlds, but there are certain attitudes that persist in both. One of the most corrosive I’ve found over these past few months was nicely summed up by the writer Frank Cottrell Boyce when he said,

“Plan to avoid failure and you don’t plan to succeed”.

Boyce in his talk on the ‘Joys of failure’ was expressing his concern over a growing achievement culture within education and society at large that is creating a fear of failure. His worry is that this is already leading us to mediocrity, to playing it safe, to not reinventing the wheel at a time when that is exactly what we need to be doing and encouraging our students to do. The further up the school students go the less their projects encourage them to experiment and the more they pull them into fail-safe strategies and middle of the road thinking. I agree with Boyce that we too easily accept misguided easily measurable notions of achievement with what we know to be real learning.

A welcome exception from this is the IBMYP’s personal project that pushes students towards ambitious complicated goals that may or not not be successful. The process, of course, is what matters. Experience of this type of thinking is crucial to showing students that ‘success’ is a multifaceted and complex business. Hearing comedian and first time film director Joe Cornish recently state that he consciously attempted an ambitious high-concept complex genre movie for his first project as he wanted to overstretch himself and succeed or fail gloriously encourages me that there are still people who see innovation as a necessity not a luxury.

#3 Does the project solve a real problem?

For a school project this means that it has to be relevant beyond the insulation of the classroom. The most powerful educational projects I have been involved with have all been carefully contextualised within a community so that the success of the project was measured primarily in those terms by the students. Were we able to change the behaviour of others? Are we now better equipped to deal with that situation? You know as a designer of school projects that when the assessed element of the project matches, in concrete terms, a skill or concept that is important beyond the classroom that it has worked.

As an educational entrepreneur my approach is that you need to take an equally broad view of the impact of your project. Will this service, this learning model, this application have a real benefit on the community it is intended for? Education is too important for projects that are not ambitious. From a business point of view this is not woolly thinking either. Getting people to see that your project solves a problem is not easy, but as long as it does, it has a chance of prospering.

"Share your ideas" by Britta Bohlinger from flickr

"Share your ideas" by Britta Bohlinger from flickr

#4 Is the project about sharing?

This one sounds a little fuzzy I know but is perhaps the most important. I never thought I’d quote Ronald Reagan but he got to the heart of this point when he said,

“There is no end to what we can achieve if we are not bothered who takes the credit for it”.

Sure we need to give feedback to individuals sometimes, learners need help to uncover their strengths and weaknesses, but there is no reason that we cannot think more in terms of learning within groups; not just as part of but as the focus of the process.

When it comes to building learning spaces and services in Ha Noi and on the web, we are deliberately developing ideas that we know are different, but we would be delighted to see them spread or taken on by others. Also when we discover projects that are similar in outlook as I did last night when Ewan McIntosh’s link brought me to Brightworks, I take encouragement that our project might work and that I am part of a growing community of educators that want to build alternatives to mainstream schooling.


3 thoughts on “What makes a good project?

  1. Rika

    Hi Colin:
    I just found your blog via Playscapes and am enjoying it immensely!
    I’m one of those people building an alternative to mainstream schooling as part of a small group starting a Sudbury school in Toronto. It’s modelled on the original Sudbury Valley School http://www.sudburyvalleyschool.com. How wonderful to see more and more people questioning the current standard model of schooling, given that it was designed for a very different era, when industry needed obedient, willing workers who cd do mindless tasks repeatedly and efficiently and not question the system. See John Taylor Gatto’s “The Underground History of American Education” at http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/index.htm.
    I look forward to exploring your thought-provoking blog further.

    1. Colin Campbell Post author

      Thanks for stopping by and for the supportive comment. I have been trying to post more regularly and getting some positive feedback really helps with that. The Sudbury Valley School concept looks interesting. I notice that the original school has been going since 1968 – it seems like what is changing is not so much the frustration with mainstream schooling, but the opportunity for people to connect with others with similar ideas. Great to hear from you.

  2. Pingback: Synecdoche New York movie poster and ‘deadline’ photo for digital storytelling course « Colin Campbell's learning space

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