I have a confession.
I have projectitis.
Projects appeal to me because it is possible to determine their beginnings and ends. The stages of a project can be defined, planned and scheduled. Plus there are Gantt charts. A Gantt chart is to a project what icing is to a cake. Perfect.
Children love projects too. We recently had a challenge from L’s school to decorate an egg to represent a favourite character from a book or film. L has a vivid imagination and she had great ideas about how to create a Rapunzel model. She spent most of Sunday afternoon cutting, glueing, painting and plaiting. She struggled, she made mistakes, the egg was dropped. Her supportive parents ate the crisps so that Rapunzel had a tower. But eventually each part of her model was finished and assembled. She was proud of what she had achieved. I wonder what small part that particular project will play in her happy, wonderful-to-watch, development?
I still remember many of my school projects: writing letters to military tank manufacturers to request copies of brochures; writing and editing the school newspaper; my geography coursework planning walks in the local area. This continued at university with the joy of hours in the chemistry laboratories titrating, reacting, purifying and identifying. And then there was my thesis, the project to end all projects.
As a teacher it is a joy to see students engaged in project work whether it is within their lessons, extracurricular activities or examined work. The IB Extended Essay or the Level 2/3 Diploma Projects are fine examples of how students are encouraged to work independently, a sadly divisive term in education at the moment. Students can develop a growing understanding of the relevance of their work through projects – the how and the why. They take growing responsibility for getting things done. The skills that young people develop and the knowledge they acquire will be invaluable to them as they progress to university and employment.
Projects, in all their glorious ways, are alive and kicking in education and long may that remain the case.
When in the middle of a big project it can be difficult to escape its confines. For want of a better phrase it can be hard to see the bigger picture. Sucked in by the desire to finish, be successful and get finished, it is easy to lose sight of why the project was ever started. It wasn’t until a long time after I finished my project on tanks that I developed an understanding of the horrors of war. The school newspaper and my geography coursework helped me on the journey towards adult literacy but only when I had to write reports and papers without someone marking and correcting my efforts did I appreciate the benefits. Laboratory work offered a rollercoaster experience and by now of course I was aware of the wider benefits of the projects on which I was working as I gained responsibility for their success, under the guidance of my mentor. I was able to lead aspects of the project within the context of the wider aims. One aspect of the role of the teacher is to be that project mentor, albeit in different ways for different students.
As a teacher and school leader I am constantly undertaking and leading projects. Small, large, long, short. Activities that can be defined, planned and scheduled. But this has to be achieved within the context of a wider vision, a longer term strategy, resulting in the very best outcomes for young people. I know that care is required to ensure that the details of the projects happen but don’t obscure the wider vision. Keeping the vision central to the project – making it the thing that drives the decisions, no matter how difficult – should always be the focus. The planning still happens, the schedules are still there, things get done, but the focus is always the bigger picture.
Of course none of this happens in isolation. There is always a reliance on other people working together across different groups. Moving mountains can only ever be achieved by a team. Communication within the team is critical to ensure a cohesive response to the needs of the vision.
I still get it wrong and my mentors have to remind me of the bigger picture. They trust that I have learnt and won’t repeat the same mistakes time and time again. In fact their standards are high so once is enough. I am grateful to them for that.
This has to be the way that high performing teams work. The pace is high, the nature and challenge of what is being achieved varied. Trust in each other is critical. Vision provides the common ground.
I think I might change my confession from ‘I have projectitis’ to ‘I have visionitis’. I’ll save the details for a future blog.