Making mayhem: The perils of project-based learning

Wes Terrell directs the science department at Skybridge Academy. You can see and play with some of the cool projects his students have made—despite all of the obstacles Wes discusses below—at the Austin Mini Maker Faire on May 3, 2014.

Flynn and Jacquelyn, who will be our first two Skybridge graduates, building a 3D printer. We could have simply bought a printer, but they wanted to build one. And I love the idea that our students are leaving a maker legacy for future Skybridge kids to use for creating.

Flynn and Jacquelyn, who will be our first two Skybridge graduates, building a 3D printer. We could have simply bought a printer, but they wanted to build one. And I love the idea that our students are leaving a maker legacy for future Skybridge kids to use for creating.

Making stuff is central to who I am as a person. I’m happiest when I’m in the midst of a project. So when I became a public school teacher, I set out to bring making to the masses of bored kids in the hopes that they would all be transformed and realize their inner maker.

In my mind, the opportunity for making was the only thing they were missing. We held a schoolwide junk drive and collected tons of awesome junk. I brought in every tool I owned, since the science department at my school had a $15,000 ventilator hood but didn’t have any $30 cordless drills. Then I told the kids to make something amazing. I showed them a bunch of pictures and videos of cool stuff that other people had made.

What followed was not the maker fantasyland that I had envisioned. Kids destroyed lots of things. They broke my tools. They even stole stuff. And worst of all, no one made anything spectacular. It dawned on me that I had grossly underestimated the energy that was required to maker-ize the public school system.

Cainan working on a solar-powered phone charger from a hacked phone charger that plugs into a cigarette lighter and a solar panel from a garage sale.

Cainan working on a solar-powered phone charger from a hacked phone charger that plugs into a cigarette lighter and a solar panel from a garage sale.

As time went on, I got better at developing systems that were more conducive to the outcomes I wanted. In some cases, I simply stopped expecting certain results. Eventually I took a job at Skybridge Academy, where many of the barriers to this kind of work were removed and the administration was in full support of this approach to learning. I thought that I could finally have the maker space of my dreams, but it turned out that there were still some pretty big obstacles to overcome.

I’ve read a lot lately about the value of getting kids to make things. If you’re someone who has been thinking about embarking on such a mission and you’ve read up on the subject, you might have the impression that these maker spaces are whimsical wonderlands of innovation. You hear less about the messy part. What follows is a brief survey of some of the hardest parts of doing this kind of work with kids. I wish I could follow this with a list of solutions. I can’t. But I do think these points are useful to keep in mind for anyone considering how to implement project-based learning activities with kids:

James converting a broken-down gasoline-powered go-kart into a three-wheeled electric vehicle.   

James converting a broken-down gasoline-powered go-kart into a three-wheeled electric vehicle.


Kids don’t know how to use tools. This sounds obvious, but I didn’t fully realize it when I started working with kids. Of course not many kids have used a chop saw before, but surely they know how to use a hammer. It turns out most of them don’t. I’ve seen kids use a drill as a hammer, a saw as a drill, and vice versa. If you’re going to use real tools—and most experienced project-based educators agree that you should—then you have to teach these things explicitly. It takes time, and tools will be destroyed in the process.

Beth and Sami getting some Arduino practice. They will build a gumball machine that releases candy only when you give the machine the correct secret knock.   

Beth and Sami getting some Arduino practice. They will build a gumball machine that releases candy only when you give the machine the correct secret knock.


Kids suck at putting things back where they belong. So you built shelves and got separate bins and even labeled each one. Kids will not put anything back where it belongs. I covered our hammers in plastic wrap, hung them from nails, and painted them with bright red paint to make bright red silhouettes of hammers that would compel a hammer user to put it back where it belongs. If you want to find one of these hammers, you’d be better off looking in the “Screwdrivers” bin. No matter how good your system is, kids will ignore it.

Teenagers are never going to act as excited as you want them to. You’ll think you’ve come up with the most exciting project these kids have ever been exposed to, when, without fail, someone will say, “This is lame.” It can be demoralizing, but you just have to remember that the most vocal opinions usually don’t represent the most popular.

Wyeth and art teacher Johnny Villarreal working on a drawing machine.   

Wyeth and art teacher Johnny Villarreal working on a drawing machine.


Lots of parents aren’t convinced that making is for their kids. Some people think that “hands-on” learning is synonymous with vocational learning, which is synonymous with my-kid-isn’t-going-to-college. Lots of parents think that their kids will be better prepared for university by memorizing electron configurations and that making stuff is for the less ambitious.

Kids hate failure. Celebrating failure has become a popular mantra lately. At least a dozen presenters at SXSWedu last month mentioned it [and multiple guest contributors to this blog have discussed it.]. The idea is that kids learn to embrace the struggle and find little nuggets of wisdom in each failed attempt at creating something. The truth is that this is way easier said than done. Kids want to celebrate their failure about as much as they want to celebrate their acne. I’ve done prototyping activities with my daughter’s kindergarten class where literally half of the kids are crying. This is not a reason to stop trying to teach this valuable lesson; in fact, it’s exactly why you must teach them that failing is okay. But it’s not pretty. I think it’s easier if you point out your own failed attempts at something, but it takes a lot of training before kids start to get this.

My messy maker classroom.

My messy maker classroom.

Some kids won’t ever be makers. A common belief among the maker crowd is that everyone is a maker. I want to believe this is true, and it’s my goal as an educator to try to prove it to all kids. I want every kid to experience that feeling you get when you create something. Some kids just don’t see the value in toiling away to create something that they can buy at the store for $10, especially when their version doesn’t look as nice and or work as well.

Kids aren’t as creative as everyone makes them out to be. I know this sounds like a terrible thing for a parent or educator to say, but it’s true. We’re told that kids are these magical little creatures that are just brimming with fantastic ideas, and that if we just give them the chance they will shine. The fact is that creativity is a skill that has to be taught, just like any other. Most kids have had their creativity stifled along the way, and so they must relearn this skill. Creativity can be taught and nurtured and refined, and we have to create environments in which this can happen. Just don’t be surprised when a group of kids fails to amaze you with their creativity. This is not to say that I am not often blown away by the ideas that kids come up with; I am. But I’m also frequently not blown away. I don’t find this discouraging; it just reinforces the idea that for me, teaching creativity is as important as teaching literacy.

I am a full-fledged supporter of the maker movement, but I know it’s not all fun and games. It’s messy, frustrating, and even depressing when it’s not going well. We can learn from each other and find out what works and what doesn’t, but there will always be challenges that lead us to question our approach.

Of course, if it were easy, then everyone would be doing it. And if we want kids to be motivated by their failed attempts, then we’d better be sure that they see us doing the same. Hats off to all those who fight the good fight.

Wes Terrell

A place at the table for failure

Educational psychologist Breana Sylvester, PhD, is leading her family on a journey through the alternative education landscape, observing and chronicling for others what she learns about noncoercive, interest-based learning communities. Here she shares an essay on failure adapted from her own blog, Dandelion Adventures.

Ashton Kutcher made a surprise appearance at TEDYouth and decided to talk not about his successes but rather about his failures. Since then my corner of the internet has been atwitter with people sharing fun ideas, and I have seen a terrific number of illustrations of the utility and beauty of failure. Here’s an anonymous one currently making the rounds on social media:

What an incredibly important message to give to learners, child and adult! Failure is an opportunity to learn and grow. Sometimes it also helps us choose direction. Rarely will failure ruin all our plans for the future; usually it tells us we need to find new ways to approach our goals, and sometimes it even gives us hints as to how. In fact, not allowing children to fail can be impairing.

Yet our culture attaches a great deal of shame to failure. What do we lose, though, if failure is not an option? How does fear of failure influence how we treat one another and ourselves?

The above comic triggered some connections that I would like to share from what I have learned from educational psychology. In particular, Goal Orientation Theory and self-compassion came to mind.

Goal Orientation Theory, also known as Achievement Goal Theory, posits that our reasons for working toward goals can vary greatly and that our orientations toward our goals have implications for how well we learn new things and how we deal with failure in the process of learning. When we learn things because we enjoy the process of learning, we are more likely to remember what we learned and also more likely to see failure as a natural part of the learning process. This is known as adopting a mastery orientation.

Another orientation posited in earlier work on goals was called performance orientation, wherein the learner’s motivation behind work toward a goal was primarily that of success at that goal, whether it be making a good grade or obtaining recognition (or avoiding failure). It is possible to have a mix of more than one orientation toward a goal. Psychologists have done a great deal of research on these goal orientations and over time have modified the theories. (You can find updated information and research findings here.)

It seems clear to me that high pressure to succeed in the form of high-stakes assessments and competition for recognition such as we find in most, if not all, traditional school settings could only contribute to the performance orientation. I find myself wondering, then, what would a learning environment that supports a mastery orientation look like? What if failure and success weren’t so dichotomized?

The second concept that sprang to mind was that of self-compassion. I used to teach a college course on applied learning and motivation theory, and we would talk about inner voice and its influence on motivation. When we got to the part about the influences of our inner voice on our motivation and emotion, students would tell me how cheesy the idea of positive self-talk seemed to them. So at the beginning of the next class I would ask them to write down what they would say to a friend who was failing two classes and was afraid of losing his financial aid at the end of the semester. Once they were done, I’d ask them to turn over the card and write what they would say to themselves in the same situation. It wasn’t uncommon to hear nervous giggling and even gasps at the realization that their words to themselves were far harsher, and frequently unhelpful.

I was fortunate in my graduate school experience to learn a good bit about the psychological concepts of mindfulness and self-compassion from Kristin Neff, an expert on the study of the latter as a psychological construct. Of course, both mindfulness and compassion are appropriated from Buddhist philosophical concepts, but there is a lot of promising research on how they are currently being used in counseling settings.

It’s true that we rarely afford ourselves the same understanding, patience, and acceptance in our failures as we do those we care about; it takes practice and even hard work to learn to see failure as a necessary part of the human condition, but by freeing ourselves from the judgment of failure, we can more clearly see the path forward and enjoy the journey!

An Example: My own fear of failure

Recently Jerry Mintz, director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), asked me what my goals were in regard to our family’s adventure in learning about alternatives to traditional educational settings. Up to that point, I’d felt that I had a somewhat clear idea of the things I knew I wanted to learn and those that I could pick up along the way. Even so, his question initially felt scrutinizing, given the early stage of our adventure planning. On reflection I realized that the reason the question made me feel uncomfortable was that I am afraid of failing, afraid of letting down the people who devote their lives to the learning environments I am just beginning to explore.

Just the tiniest shift in mindset—allowing myself to acknowledge my fear of failure and approaching his question as a learning opportunity—led me to experience a much deeper and more thought-out conceptualization of our adventures, which will, in all probability help me convey my goals to those I hope to work with. Yes, there’s a chance I may still fail at my ultimate goal of encouraging a large number of people to think more critically about how we educate students and teachers, but once my fears have been acknowledged, I can see past them, and I can see that what we gain by trying will be an experience of great value for me, for my family, and hopefully for others!

Here’s wishing you all wonderful opportunities to face your fears!

Breana Sylvester

On proficiency

Kami Wilt has been thinking a lot about proficiency lately. She shares her thoughts on the topic in this guest post, her third for Alt Ed Austin. Kami runs—quite proficiently, I might add—the Austin Tinkering School, which now has a second location, on North Lamar.

Proficiency: A high degree of competence or skill; expertise. Synonyms: skill, expertise, experience, accomplishment, competence, mastery, prowess, deftness, dexterity, finesse

I’ve had a sewing machine for several years now—longer than I’d care to admit, because I continue to have a contentious relationship with my machine. I didn’t grow up sewing, and although I took a few sewing classes awhile back, my experiences sewing at home are peppered with frustration and troubleshooting. I can hack it through a small project, but the thought of using it kind of stresses me out. I don't feel like, “Oh, I’ll just sit down and whip that out,” but instead brace myself for the inevitable snarls and hiccups that accompany my sewing experiences. 

I don’t know what happened, or what shifted, because I hadn’t even used the machine recently, but this week I had an idea for something I wanted to make, and I just sat down and MADE it. My off-and-on usage over the years had somehow reached the tipping point, and I achieved proficiency. The machine didn’t give me trouble. My project came together more or less the way I had wanted it to. I’m no expert, so maybe saying that I suddenly became proficient on the sewing machine is overstating it a tad, but the feeling that I could use the machine with ease opened me up to all sorts of projects that seemed way out of my range before, and my synapses were firing all over the place.

Of course, I've had this experience with other tools, too. I can remember the mental “click” that happened when using the chop saw changed from anxiety-producing to no big deal, and the possibilities that suddenly opened up when I could make those quick cuts easily. I took a screen printing class a few years ago, yet the screens I made weren’t seeing any action; I still felt like it was something I couldn’t really do on my own. But this summer I wanted the kids in my summer camps to get an Austin Tinkering School t-shirt, and ordering a bunch of preprinted shirts just didn’t seem very tinkery. Now, 84 t-shirts later, I'm feeling pretty fly with that squeegee!

At least for me, a single class usually is not enough to help me break through my mental block with a new tool. It takes a lot of time and floundering and mess-ups, which can be very hard for us results-oriented and failure-averse adults. Kids are so much better at just being interested in the process and persevering as they learn to use a new tool, if we give them that space. At Tinkering School we often see kids sawing through a big, thick two-by-four with a handsaw or working to cut a piece of cord with a pair of scissors, completely absorbed for surprisingly long periods. Sometimes it’s hard to not just step in and do it for them. But we don’t rescue them, because we want them to have that chance to hone their skills—and to be opened up to the multitude of possibilities that mastery of a new tool affords.

When I see a kid suddenly driving in screws by herself, where before she was fumbling and nervous and needed help, I am so psyched that she was able to make the leap from “I can use a drill, but only at Tinkering School” to “I can use a drill. On my own. Any time I have access to one.” That’s a kid who’s more empowered.

Proficiency is key to feeling like we can have an effect on the world around us. We can fix things. We can make things. We move from passivity (“It broke, and now we have to throw it out” or “I have an idea but no idea how to build it, so I never will”) to action and participation. Not only does this society needs all the active participants it can get, but being a part of the Making and the Doing is also a lot more fun!

Kami Wilt

Celebrating failure!

In this very personal guest post, Ariel Dochstader Miller argues for embracing failure as a positive and necessary experience in school and beyond. Ariel is cofounder and chief motivator at Austin’s Bronze Doors Academy.

My birthday was a few days ago, and my husband fulfilled my lifelong dream of having a party for me at Peter Pan Mini Golf. One of the partygoers was my eight-year-old birth daughter, whom I carried for my dear friend, who is infertile.

At one point during the party, her mom told me that she was very upset and crying because she was not doing well at mini golf. I went to her and discussed how she was feeling. This child was crying and wanted to leave because she was not performing up to her expectations.

One of my concerns for this child of my heart is that she is becoming a perfectionist because she is attending a school where the factors that determine success are all external. She is living in a world that values a memorize-for-the-test-then-forget mentality versus learning how to fail fabulously and celebrate learning because it is fun. The other young party attendees were students who attend the progressive school I own. None of them were keeping score, and I could tell the amount of fun they were having by the peals of laughter issuing forth from the golf course.

Bronze Doors Academy kids celebrate the prospect of failure at the mini golf course on this special occasion—and at school every day.

One of the things I fear most for public school youth (and those at many traditional private schools as well) is that too often they are taught that failure is the worst thing that can happen. I could not disagree more. I believe failure should be celebrated. Milton Hershey started seven businesses that failed before he found his recipe for success in his hometown of what is now called Hershey, Pennsylvania. Walt Disney went to more than three hundred banks before he found one that would fund his dream of Disney Studios. How many people would have stopped at one or two failed attempts?

The determining factor for today’s students’ future will not be how many degrees they have, their test scores, or grades but rather their entrepreneurial skills and ability to think critically. Microsoft specifically says it hires people who fail often because that means they are innovators who are not afraid to push the boundaries of whatever they are working on.

Both of my parents died young, and thus I am a huge joy advocate. None of us knows how much time we have, so why waste it not experiencing joy because we are not performing to some external measure? At Bronze Doors Academy, the adults model the attitude that failing can be spectacularly fun and is actually quite important, because it means you are stretching yourself and trying something new and different. We also model that perseverance is much more desirable than striving for perfection. In my study of business and owners of successful companies, I have found that their unwillingness to give up was much more important to their success than their grades. A study I read a few years back found that most successful business owners were C students.

Solving the problems we are facing as a society will require serious out-of-the-box thinking. Why not enjoy ourselves while pushing the boundaries of what we know is possible, even if it means the ball never goes in the hole?

Ariel Dochstader Miller

A garden, a dream, and the sun

Carly Borders, director and guide at The Soleil School, joins the Alt Ed Austin conversation with this guest post about her journey as a parent, professional educator, and entrepreneur toward a new model of education called the Whole Learning Framework.

Imagine planting a large and diverse garden. You’ve planted all types of flowers, vegetables, fruits, and herbs—all at the same time. Suppose you cultivated them all in the same way, ignoring each plant’s unique requirements? Every day, you water all of the seeds the same amount. You give them all the same amount of fertilizer. A few of the plants are sprouting and appear to be doing fairly well. But you notice that the rest are weak and brittle, if they’re growing at all. Yet you continue to do things the same way, all the while wondering why all of the plants aren’t thriving.

But what if you had more flexibility? What if you got to know each flower and each peapod more intimately? You’ve taken great care to understand the different plants and the care it takes to bring each one up healthy to flower in its own way. And so you plant them according to their unique needs—at the right times, with the right amount of sunlight and the right kind of food. After a time, they’re all sprouting. They’re being given what they need, because they’re being treated with the respect they need. And look at the colors that begin to emerge! From the pinks of the roses to the yellows of the squash flowers: it’s beautiful. Throughout the seasons you take great care with each flower and each fruit. And the reward is greater than you could have imagined.

I hope you see where I’m going with my little education allegory. As my own child was quickly approaching school age, I knew I had to listen to my instincts. I knew I wanted him to be somewhere he could thrive. We knew the public schools weren’t right for our family. And given my background as an educator, not to mention the way I feel about alternative education, I knew I had something to contribute.

I have been trained in the Montessori method, which is rooted in values like independence, internal motivation, and hands-on experiences. Maybe I could have taken a job at a nice Montessori school. Happily, though, a friend introduced me to Ariel Miller, who had recently started a middle and high school program called Bronze Doors Academy. She met with me and expressed her desire for someone to begin a new program in the same building for younger students. The idea was daunting, but I felt this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Could I be an educational entrepreneur?

I could easily have said no to this question. I had to ask myself what was holding me back. Was it that I didn’t feel qualified? Or was it simply a fear of failure? I decided to channel what I had learned about other successful people and take a chance. Success doesn’t come to those who are unwilling to take risks. I allowed the idea of the school to germinate in my mind, and I started piecing things together bit by bit. After several weeks, what would become The Soleil School started to take shape.

Now, as we’ve begun our first full school year, I am delighted at what is emerging: Students at The Soleil School are part of a family and school community. They are encouraged first to pursue areas most of interest to them and explore outward from there. So we begin by setting goals. Taking what I learned from my training in the Montessori method, experience in project-based education, and my appreciation for Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, I have devised a foundational philosophy called the Whole Learning Framework. It is a holistic approach in which students are encouraged to develop through a process of continuous discovery. By allowing them to work toward personal goals—which are set with guidance by both parents and the guide (me)—the students are intrinsically motivated. Contrast this with a quizzes-and-pellets method in which students are rewarded for conformity and regurgitation.

In keeping with the “soleil” (sun, in French) theme, we’ve created ten learning areas in the classroom, which we call “satellites.” These subject areas revolve around the children (not the other way around). The satellites are not exhaustive, but they’re designed to let kids visualize, categorize, and contextualize different paths to learning discovery that are open to them.

We began this year by talking about the idea that the students are on a “quest.” I asked them to think about the question: What is your quest? Our first project was to create a “quest comic.” Each student was to come up with a main character who has strengths and weaknesses. Of course, the main character sets out on some sort of quest, where her strengths are to be employed and weaknesses overcome—all to reach a goal and overcome obstacles along the way. In this way, the students are able to use their creativity to delve deeper into the metaphor of the quest.

This idea will permeate what we do, whether it be academic, social, or spiritual. Ultimately, I believe in what is happening at The Soleil School. This is my quest, after all. We are different from a Montessori classroom in that we embrace technology, imagination, and collaboration. But the inspiration from Maria Montessori is certainly present in the philosophical underpinnings, in that my role is not so much a teacher but a guide. I follow the students, observing and encouraging each. I believe in them and I stress self-reliance even as I guide them. Their goals should be challenging, but realistic. Unlike most traditional forms of education, The Whole Learning Framework provides tools for creating a highly individualized curriculum based on the passions and needs of each child. We are here—and we’ll continue to be here—because we believe every child is unique, beautiful, and ready to thrive.

Carly Borders

The chance to feel frustrated

I’m pleased to welcome the illustrious Kami Wilt, of the Austin Tinkering School and Austin Mini Maker Faire, to Alt Ed Austin’s lineup of guest bloggers. Here she discusses the challenges and rewards of frustration. She'd love to hear about your experiences, so I encourage you to leave Kami a comment or question below.

Frustration - TinkeringSchool.jpg

Recently I was leading a class and was, as usual, doing several things at once: plugging in the glue guns, showing someone how to test his battery with the multimeter, getting out the sharpies for the kid who has to decorate every inch of available space—the usual. This is the kind of usual that I totally love.

True to the tinkering ethos, we had an outcome in mind, but we left it open-ended as to how to arrive at that outcome. In tinkering, we try to create projects where kids are encouraged to design and create and problem-solve on their own. We consciously choose not to create too many projects (though sometimes they have their place) that are just follow-along-with-the-teacher activities (“Cut here, fold there, and now we all have a toy car that looks exactly the same! Wheee!”).

Anyway, I had a kid who was stuck. He hadn't been stuck for long. But he was stuck, and the expression on his face read, “Frustrated.” He was SO CLOSE, and I wanted so much to take his project out of his hands and just get it working for him. In fact, the urge to just get it going and spare us both the experience of feeling frustrated and stuck for even one second was almost unbearably uncomfortable. But I decided to ride it out for just a few moments more. Interestingly, he didn't disengage or walk away from the table. I stood next to him and quietly looked at his project with him. I didn't talk a lot or offer suggestions (and he didn't ask for any). I'm sure you can guess the moral of this story: After a few moments of rumination and meditation, the next step revealed itself. His excitement and ownership of the project were not infringed on by me, and now he has a cool experience in his memory bank of working through frustration successfully.

Why is it so hard for us to let our kids feel frustration? It makes me break out in an icy sweat sometimes, and I supposedly have experience in these matters. Luckily, I have my mentor, Gever Tulley, who created Tinkering School and Brightworks in San Francisco, to inspire me and keep me motivated to create experiences where kids have time and space to work on projects (and all the accompanying successes and failures) in their own way, free from an overabundance of adult imposition. An ability to manage and work through frustration is essential to almost anyone in our world who gets anything done. As I overheard one kid say to another recently, “A genius is someone who tries something and if it doesn't work out, he tries something else. And if that doesn't work out, he tries something else. And if that doesn't work out, he tries something else.” Couldn’t have said it better myself!

I think we disrespect children when we assume they can't handle a moment of frustration. It can be really beneficial for a child to have space to think through something on her own, without having an adult jump in and prod her along. We adults can at times be overzealous in our roles as supervisors and facilitators of experiences. As Gever said in one of his great TED talks, “We, the adults, are superheroes, endowed with the power of supervision. Let us use our powers wisely and be amazed at what children can do.”

Kami Wilt