We invite you to go on a deep dive with us into the process of designing and facilitating project-based learning, by exploring one project in some detail.
In 2017, in collaboration with Lorraine Srage, Dino Angelou and Caryn Horowitz we facilitated the #iexist exhibition with Grade 8 and 9 learners at King David Linksfield.
Project-based learning is a methodology that enables a teacher to move beyond the memorisation of content towards the development of a wide range of transferable skills. Instead of instructing learners in a top-down approach, they are given the opportunity to explore, within well-designed constraints, and discover knowledge and skills that are meaningful to them. Project-based learning also enables teachers to move beyond narrow definitions of academic success to include diverse dispositions and abilities, exploring a wider range of skills vital to life. In this context the facilitator’s job is to hold the space for that process of discovery.
A project-based learning approach:
- encourages learners to work things out for themselves, through trial-and-error performance, adapting to regular and meaningful feedback, finding a way towards their own definitions of success;
- engages learners in immersive, multi-sensorial, physical, emotional and intellectual experiences that are relevant to them, rather than abstracted knowledge that has no meaningful context;
- challenges the popular perception of learning as the passive process of receiving predesigned knowledge from a teacher or an expert;
- focuses on open-ended questions and unresolved challenges for which there aren’t necessarily any predictable or correct answers;
- reinforces intrinsic motivation, in which the learning is meaningful to the learner, going beyond the extrinsic motivation of marks, rankings of learners and awards;
- encourages a growth mindset in which learners experience themselves as able to adapt to change, without a fear of failure, and with as little anxiety as possible;
- models what it is like to collaborate on problem solving in the world of work and in diverse forms of activism;
- shows the deep knowledge structures that different subjects share (through interdisciplinary or integrated studies) and how they are interconnected in real world systems.
To explore this topic further, here is our resource for teachers on project-based learning.
An exhibition on Jewish identity
Poem Without an End
Inside the brand-new museum
there’s an old synagogue.
Inside the synagogue
Inside my heart
Inside the museum
inside my heart
In 2017 MindBurst Workshop facilitated a project-based learning and integrated studies process for Grade 8 and 9 at King David Linksfield. We were asked to focus on the theme of Jewish identity.
We made it very clear that we did not facilitate the production of propaganda, and that if we did this project it would encourage a critical and creative reflection on Jewish identity, an opportunity for learners to honestly explore and express their relationship to the cultural identity and traditions they have inherited. We did not want to confront learners with authoritative or absolute ideas about identity and tradition that merely had to be believed, memorised and reproduced. Instead, we wanted them to reflect on their own subjective experience of being Jewish (a grateful, critical, creative and collaborative reflection) and to ask the most honest and generative questions they could – potentially questions that were going to contribute to the knowledge and future experience of their community. Learners composed some deliberately provocative questions like the one below.
We really wanted learners to see how their community’s values, the various interpretations of their history, their traditions and cultural practices, and the way their identity has been constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed over time, can be resources that they can tap into.
We knew that we wanted the process to be stimulating, complex (with many interacting components), requiring the participation and collaboration of diverse abilities, sustained over time. We decided that an ideal vehicle for this was the design of an exhibition – an immersive three-dimensional exhibition that the learners would conceive, design and build.
In order to prepare learners for this we would have to facilitate full-day workshops for Grade 8 and 9 on the skills of a curator.
A curator juxtaposes artefacts, artworks, images, words, performances and space – in order to evoke feelings and thoughts in those who engage the exhibition. The juxtaposition should tell a meaningful story and inspire conversations.
- from one of our hand-outs
In collaboration with Lorraine Srage, Dino Angelou and Caryn Horowitz we decided to represent Jewish identity as a huge physical tree in the middle of the Mini Hall. The tree was a template. As the project developed the learners would be able to create physical representations of their insights and integrate them into the tree.
How can I benefit from the experience of those who came before me?
How can I do that without taking the same risks or paying what it cost them?
The Grade 8s developed the roots of the tree, representing inheritance (values, beliefs, practices, knowledge systems, technologies and aesthetics). They based their ideas on interviews with their grandparents and elders. Most importantly they learnt about being in time and how everything that has happened was necessary for them to be, to exist, here and now.
There were 8 roots in total, one to be created by each class in Grade 8, and each root focused on a particular aspect of Jewish tradition and history. The themes for the roots were:
- Literature and Philosophy
- Art and Media
- Science and Mathematics
- Politics and Governance
- Entertainment and Performance
- Rituals and Rites of Passage
- Transforming the Environment
How does my existence impact on the existence of others?
How can my existence enhance the existence of others?
How can their existence enhance mine?
The Grade 9s developed the branches of the tree, representing both the way the future of Jewish identity is being challenged by disruptive technologies and global culture – as well as the way Jewish values can inform the future.
There were 7 branches in total, one to be created by each class in Grade 9, with each branch being a distinct theme. Each theme was then divided into five thought-provoking subthemes or possibilities for the future. Each subtheme was embraced by a small group of curators, who used it to design a separate tree for the surrounding forest. The 7 branches with their subthemes were:
- Life Online (individual and communal online identities; language online, emojis, dominance of English, popular languages, coding; advertising, profiling and nudging; social and psychological impact of gaming; cyber security)
- Rise of the Machines (machine learning; automation; rights and responsibilities of conscious machines; technocracy; the internet of things)
- Innovating the Future (3D printing; augmented reality and virtual reality; drones; quantum computing; the built environment)
- The New Human (genetic modification; genetic medicines; a world without race; body augmentation; substance use and abuse)
- Space: the Final Frontier (search for extra-terrestrial life; terraforming; asteroid mining; planetary colonisation; space governance, politics and laws)
- Home Planet (loss of biodiversity and remediation of ecosystems; climate change refugees; the end of fossil fuels; sustainable food sources; animal rights)
- Deal Or No Deal: Economics and Politics (economic inequality; the knowledge economy; migrants, borders and xenophobia; the future of human rights and democracy; alternatives to capitalism)
The trunk of the tree represented five organising principles of Jewish identity. We developed these in consultation with Rabbi Craig Kacev of the Jewish Board of Education. The organising principles were:
- experiencing the sacred;
- embracing human dignity;
- offering service;
- creating knowledge;
- being free to choose
These organising principles were used to stimulate a whole-school conversation in which teachers, learners and parents all engaged and had a part to play. Posters were put up around the school to remind everyone of the five organising principles that would become the trunk of the tree.
The brand – #iexist
At King David, learner leaders are divided into committees. One of these, the Awareness Committee, focuses on social issues. They had created the brand #iexist for one of their successful projects. Inspired by the brand we got their permission to use it for the exhibition, explaining that we hoped it could help learners to grapple with existence.
We had an interesting conversation with teachers about how the way we teach often obscures the real pleasure of learning. We emphasise the pressure to succeed at school rather than the inspiration to grow. We insist on the correct answer rather than equip learners to ask the most powerful questions. We focus on memorisation rather than real understanding, application, critical analysis and creative innovation. We encourage the reproduction of inherited knowledge rather than discovery of new knowledge. We focus on competition and the ranking of learners (using narrow criteria) rather than the satisfaction of meaningful participation. All these practices often obscure the joy of knowing, of experiencing awe before the universe, appreciating the mystery of being alive, and reflecting on the profound phenomenon of being an arrangement of matter, information and energy that can contemplate its own existence. We explained how the #iexist project was not a process of top-down instruction but a process of bottom-up discovery in an immersive project-based learning experience, developing: curiosity, character, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and citizenship.
Teacher training sessions
There were four teacher training sessions leading up to the one-day workshops. The aim of these sessions was to inspire teachers to risk the experiment and open themselves to learning something about the value of project-based learning.
While #iexist could be seen as happening outside of the standard curriculum, teachers were invited to use the project to capture marks for assessment tasks required by the curriculum. We asked them to share what they were expected to cover during the term so we could build onto the knowledge and skills of that content during the workshops and in the post-workshop sessions. We did not want teachers to feel the project was a distraction from precious teaching time.
They were also invited to brainstorm ideas around the five organising principles that would form the trunk of the tree and use them to start the whole-school conversation.
Two large curator workshops were held with the Grade 8's and 9's to introduce the broad concept, the steps of the exhibition process and some design techniques. Learners were challenged to think about what content they wished to include.
In this workshop you will become a member of a team of curators.
project manager – art director – copy editor – architect – marketing executive - archivist
This collection of diverse talents has to collaborate to develop an exhibition that will stimulate, disturb, challenge, inform, entertain, inspire and move the people who experience it.
- from one of our hand-outs
The workshop used fun interactive devices to explore the themes. For example, Grade 8 learners used emojis to represent their emotional responses to different aspects of their culture (business & economics; technology; food & other substance use and abuse; spirituality & religion; family life; school, university and other forms of education). This helped them discuss what they wanted to keep and what they wanted to change – leaving a legacy and becoming worthy ancestors.
What does it mean to exist in space and in time?
What does it feel like?
How did I get to exist here and now?
What are the things that I didn’t choose, the things I inherited, that I have to work with?
What can I change?
What are the advantages of existing now, at this particular time in history?
With both grades we played a game that explored the fundamental role that values play in culture. Grade 8s created animals as allegories for the values they perceived as primary. Grade 9s applied the values they chose to a critique of the disposable fashion industry.
Grade 8s engaged the 5 principles of Jewish identity through poetry. Grade 9s discussed Hebrew phrases that captured the principles. For example, embracing human dignity could be understood as kavod ha’adam (dignity), and creating knowledge could be understood as makhloket (disagreement). Grade 9s also came up with critical questions relating to each of the principles. These informed the posters we designed to drive the whole school conversation.
The Nobodiest Somebody
(being free to choose)
Once there was nobody
who spent much of his time
preoccupied with becoming somebody
He required certain people and things
to embark upon somebodyhood
’twas a trying task indeed
this climb from nobody to somebodyship
Somewhere along the road
from nobody to somebody
somebody found himself to be
but more somebody than nobody
So this is what it feels like to be a somebody,
as he wore his somebody hat
and met fellow somebodies
to discuss some things
(unknown to nobodies)
as he walked with busybodies
where somebodies summer
I’m not nobody
which makes me a sure somebody
and no longer nobody
Somebody met nobody
who was once somebody
’twas confusing for both somebody and nobody
Their discussion lasted well into the night
If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, could not somebody have heard it too?
Nobody agreed that somebody might hear the falling tree but . . .
Sounds heard by somebody are different than sounds heard by nobody
Oh to be somebody turned nobody
Oh to be nobody turned somebody
Whom to be?
Nobody and somebody decided to trade hats so that each would know how it felt to be in the
But somebody remembered his nobodyhood
and nobody remembered his somebodyhood
Which is exactly how it was meant to be from the very beginning of somebodyship
An Extraordinary Morning
(embracing human dignity)
Two young men—you just might call them boys—
waiting for the Woodward streetcar to get
them downtown. Yes, they’re tired, they’re also
dirty, and happy. Happy because they’ve
finished a short work week and if they’re not rich
they’re as close to rich as they’ll ever be
in this town. Are they truly brothers?
You could ask the husky one, the one
in the black jacket he fills to bursting;
he seems friendly enough, snapping
his fingers while he shakes his ass and sings
“Sweet Lorraine,” or if you’re put off
by his mocking tone ask the one leaning
against the locked door of Ruby’s Rib Shack,
the one whose eyelids flutter in time
with nothing. Tell him it’s crucial to know
if in truth this is brotherly love. He won’t
get angry, he’s too tired for anger,
too relieved to be here, he won’t even laugh
though he’ll find you silly. It’s Thursday,
maybe a holy day somewhere else, maybe
the Sabbath, but these two, neither devout
nor cynical, have no idea how to worship
except by doing what they’re doing,
singing a song about a woman they love
merely for her name, breathing in and out
the used and soiled air they wouldn’t know
how to live without, and by filling
the twin bodies they’ve disguised as filth.
They have discovered, they say,
the protein of itch—
natriuretic polypeptide b—
and that it travels its own distinct pathway
inside my spine.
As do pain, pleasure, and heat.
A body it seems is a highway,
a cloverleaf crossing
well built, well traversed.
Some of me going north, some going south.
Ninety percent of my cells, they have discovered,
are not my own person,
they are other beings inside me.
As ninety-six percent of my life is not my life.
Yet I, they say, am they—
my bacteria and yeasts,
my father and mother,
my drivers talking on cell phones,
my subways and bridges,
my thieves, my police
who chase my self night and day.
My proteins, apparently also me,
fold the shirts.
I find in this crowded metropolis
a quiet corner,
where I build of not-me Lego blocks
pigeons, a sandwich
of rye bread, mustard, and cheese.
It is me and is not,
that makes the sandwich good.
It is not me then is,
a mystery neither of us
can fold, unfold, or consume.
(experiencing the sacred)
in the small basement shul,
amidst several Chassidic students lost in prayer,
I looked up from my siddur
to see a man in worker’s clothes climb a ladder
and enter through an open ceiling panel.
And I thought, Oh yes,
he is just another one
like all of us
trying desperately to ascend,
but knowing full well he must come back down
to perform the work of this earth.
Is it for our smiling faces
that she gets up at seven on Fridays to put an apron on
and stand in front of a hot stove, even in the summer heat
when the air conditioner’s not working well, even when
her ankle is swollen and her medicine is making her throat dry
and her body tired?
Is it for the kisses planted on both her cheeks
that she cooks a feast every week for fifteen people?
pot roast and carrots, chicken, salmon, eggplants,
and special vegetarian dishes for her oldest granddaughter.
Is it the ritual she loves? — setting wine and challah on a white cloth
so her children, some married, some with children of their own,
can come stand around her table and listen in silence
as one of her sons reads Kiddush.
Or are these the gestures of a woman who gives without thinking?
whose fingers turn a beet into a delicacy,
whose hands find pleasure in onions, parsley, and garlic cloves.
Grade 8s practiced interview techniques that would help them to gather information for their installations. Grade 9s imagined how changes in technology and global culture would challenge Jewish identity in the near future.
The Grade 8 and 9 classes were split into smaller groups called curator teams. Each curator team was given their own mentor teacher and each member in the team took on a specific role:
- Archivist: Collects and safely stores everything produced. Records the experience that team members have of the process – ‘the making of’.
- Architect: Manages building materials and the building process. Responsible for sourcing, collecting and storing materials.
- Copy editor: Manages the production of all the text for the exhibition, including titles, questions, captions, body text, and instructions for viewers.
- Art director: Manages the production of all the artworks (images and sculptural elements). Makes sure a plan is in place for the production of each element.
- Marketing executive: Posts images and comments on the project’s Facebook site. Writes a short paragraph for press release. Creates media teasers all around the school.
- Project manager: Creates a schedule and makes sure that everyone understands what they are doing. Inspires everyone and keeps the group energy and enthusiasm high. Is the main contact person for the teachers and MindBurst Workshop.
While the classes worked as wholes on the roots and branches, the curator teams would work on other elements of the exhibition.
The Grade 8 curator teams would create 'shoots' to capture their thoughts around what insights they were gaining about their traditions and cultural inheritance – based on the interviews they had conducted with their elders. Their shoots were framed with silhouettes of leaves from trees indigenous to Israel.
The Grade 9 curator teams would create trees to line the walls around the exhibition. Each tree captured the curator groups' research around the subthemes under each branch.
Each team was given an exhibition checklist to help them plan and create their own schedule.
On-going mentorship – leading up to the exhibition
In the four weeks following the initial curator workshops, the mentor teachers that had been assigned to each class helped them to focus on their strategy and time management.
The mentors facilitated four additional short workshops of two-hours each. The first hour of these short workshops focused on helping classes and curator teams to reflect on checklists, make decisions together and to create schedules that could manage their production processes. Learners also discussed and voted on big design decisions like what fonts to use in the exhibition. Consistent fonts in headings (Century Gothic got the vote), body text (Calibri) and captions (Chalkboard), could help to hold an exhibition of very diverse installations together. The fonts also had to work together aesthetically.
The second hour engaged the learners in stimulating integrated studies work. We tried to emphasise to the teachers that the process was not meant to be time away from the curriculum, but an opportunity to approach the content and objectives of the curriculum from the perspective of intrinsic motivation and a growth mindset.
The first session integrated studies activity was to create praise poems of their ancestors based on the structure of Zulu praise poetry that both praises and criticises its leaders and ancestors. These praise poems were also placed around the final exhibition (the yellow pages).
The second integrated studies activity was an exploration of the role of Jewish people in South Africa during colonialism and apartheid. They explored Hannah Arendt’s idea of “the banality of evil.” This is not about evil intent, but about the lack of intent when people accept the default pattern of their society and outsource their decision making to authorities and tradition. They also explored the role that certain courageous Jewish activists played in the liberation movement.
The third and last integrated studies session involved creating a dramatization of Afrikaans poetry. Olga Kirsch, the daughter of a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant, became only the second female poet to be published in Afrikaans. Her poem Die Wandelende Jood [The Wandering Jew], first appeared in 1946 in the second edition of Standpunte.
The fourth session focused solely on project management.
In between these sessions the learners delegated tasks to do amongst themselves (writing, making art, collecting, sorting, constructing); the mentors offered advice and encouragement; the parents helped to collect materials for the exhibition; and the community provided insights around Jewish tradition through interviews.
On the Sunday before the installation, parents and teachers helped MindBurst to create the huge tree in the Mini Hall. The architect Steffen Fischer was an enormous help in designing the infrastructure that would hold the exhibition. In the days that followed he wielded his glue-gun to great effect, helping learners to add all their finishing touches.
The exhibition was installed during breaks over a period of three days in a well-scheduled relay.
Many learners outside of Grade 8 and 9 also became involved in the project. Learner committees and their leaders made valuable contributions to the exhibition, as well as creating a system were viewers could access detailed information about each exhibition piece by scanning a QR code.