The goal: Get students to love the work

In 20+ years of teaching, I’ve never heard one student say they deeply enjoyed the time they spent studying for or taking a multiple-choice test — or that they were really engaged by reading the textbook.

Working on a meaningful creative project, however, triggers something different.

“It sounds cliché, but ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ holds true even for this,” explained Daniel, an AP Psych student. “When I’m having fun with a project, I tend to lose track of time.”

Daniel and his partner, Gabriel, recently spent about six hours creating a 5-minute video designed to explain the brain to younger students. You can watch their video here.

The work they did is impressive — they won’t soon forget the structure or functions of the brain — but what’s most exciting to me is the way this project engaged them. They were experiencing what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi calls “flow.” In this state, he said, people are completely absorbed by a meaningful, creative pursuit. They forget to check the clock, check their grades or wait for a paycheck.

I asked Daniel and Gabriel why they spent so much time on this project and how they felt about it. Their responses included a lot of the words “creativity” and “fun.” They also described their work process.

“We spent about two hours planning the project, one hour recording the drawings and voice-over, and two hours to edit the video and music,” Gabriel said. “We also spent an hour playing Ping Pong and talking about girls because we are high school boys — it’s how we work.”

That’s more or less how we all work, at least when we’re doing something creative. When I sit down to write, I don’t just fire up the computer, work for two hours straight, and finish. I stop for a cup of coffee, call a friend, check email, go for a run. It’s all part of the process, and I know my brain is working on my next paragraph while I’m consciously distracted.

This kind of learning experience is unfortunately rare in high school. I know my students are motivated most of the time by grades, not enjoyment. But getting students to experience “flow” and happily dedicate themselves to a meaningful task is so much more rewarding.

Can we do more of this type of learning?

Many teachers believe that the high-stakes testing climate, prescriptive Common Core standards and forced conformity in “professional learning communities” are draining creativity from public school classrooms, rather than encouraging it.

I fear that is often the case. Teachers no longer feel as free to dream up a project — let’s take a day for a poetry slam! — and our students no longer get many opportunities to showcase what they know through creative activities, posters and plays.

To be fair, I do understand the forces that have driven us here. Some teachers used to use their almost-unlimited purview over the curriculum to essentially waste kids’ time. Many pet projects — like dioramas of the frontier — rewarded parents’ ability to buy art supplies rather than students’ deep understanding of pioneers’ lives.

A “fun” project that doesn’t engage students with the curriculum or develop higher-order thinking skills isn’t really defensible. It’s also hard to set aside class time for the downtime that genuine creativity requires.

But I believe it is possible to navigate the current climate and engage students in creative, immersive learning experiences without sacrificing content.

I was fortunate to inherit this assignment idea from Dr. Kay Schaffer, a retired AP Psych teacher and friend. She had developed it as an interactive children’s book project — students made pop-up books to teach children about the brain. Her students consistently produced amazing work, and they mastered the difficult content through the process of breaking it into simple, kid-friendly language.

I modified the project a little, allowing students to make videos or games as well, but mostly I’ve kept what she designed. It’s a nice blend of serious content and creativity, and the ability to produce something authentic motivates many students.

“The ‘end result’ of studying for a test is normally just a number score or a paper test with red marks on it,” Daniel observed. But projects “have a more tangible result.”

Students need creative outlets and the opportunity to produce tangible work, and we need to ensure they are learning meaningful content. Our goal, then, must be to find more ways to blend the two.

Thanks, Daniel and Gabriel, for being willing to share your project.