Working for a start-up feels a lot like thinking of a grand idea with a group of your friends and turning it into a club or project involving some common interests. I say that because I once attempted to start a whistling a cappella group in high school and failed miserably when we found out we couldn’t whistle. The point being, not that we failed miserably or that some ideas are just too far-fetched, but that in a start-up things are much more relaxed. You can call people by their first names, joke around, wear casual clothing, and generally hang out with your employers and co-workers. You can sleep in and stay late at work and work is not a place in the traditional sense, but rather a place of mind where productivity occurs. You don’t necessarily have daily duties or a schedule of meetings, but you do have projects. These are projects with mountain loads of work that are not arranged in any organized way, but you have to sift through and seek out some way to anchor yourself before you topple over on your way up the pile. You have to research like you’re a student, but produce practical results from that research instead of making hypothetical claims about what might or might not work in a 20 page paper in double-spaced Times New Roman font, or maybe just maybe, Arial. A start-up is yours much more than any other work is. You own that project whether it succeeds or not and there are few systems in place to stop you from going in a completely right or wrong direction. For it to succeed, everyone involved must rely on an immense amount of trust.
That’s what I’m doing with this concept of project-based learning that we are trying to successfully implement at Leap. Yes, there is plenty of evidence that project-based learning works and that it is one of the best methodologies for teaching out there to date. There is enough science surrounding the methodology to allow me to sleep at night, but the difficulty comes with the gaps between the idea in theory and the nitty-gritty on-the-ground practice. I’ve seen it fail miserably and I’ve seen it succeed gloriously just within the same school. Any start-up knows that risk is like that. You can’t expect brilliant results without putting in some trust. You can play it smart and research all you want (and you should), but eventually you have to just close your eyes and go for it. Okay, maybe closing your eyes is a bit much. How about just peeking ahead?
For those who may be new to the concept, project-based learning is a teaching, or rather a learning methodology where students take on large-scale projects and learn through the scope of the project rather than through smaller-scale projects that simply supplement traditional lecture-based classroom learning. At the essence of project-based learning, or PBL, is the idea that students drive their own learning and the teacher acts more as a facilitator. Classrooms worldwide are tackling this approach to learning, including some schools in our very own Philadelphia. The Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC), which is a non-profit organization that serves Greater Philadelphia, provides grants to schools that implement project-based learning during and/or after school. Through my work with a club more successful than my whistling club, CSSP, I have had the opportunity to work in two PHMC funded project-based learning programs. What I learned from those experiences is that PBL can really fail. It can fail when its message gets misconstrued and teachers see it just as another imposition on how they conduct their craft. It can fail when it is only seen as a method of obtaining funding for a program and not as an essential component of good learning. It’s meaning can be so easily stripped from it when you cannot build up a sense of trust in the idea. Teachers have to be willing to adapt their craft to changing times and it is no easy or politically correct task to ask someone to change what people in their profession have been doing for the past century. That being said, many teachers are very open to changing, but lack trust from their administration. Principals must believe that their teachers are capable of following standards while being creative and stepping outside of the norm. School board officials, the government, and members of the community must trust that new ideas may sometimes be worth funding. On top of all that, people must trust in the students. Teachers, parents, principals, and other community members all have to trust that the students are capable of accomplishing work that mimics what we do as adults in the “real world”. We have to set the expectations much higher than we have dared to before and that can be downright terrifying.
Like many start-ups, Leap has some pretty lofty and sometimes downright terrifying goals set for itself. They are tackling years and years of education based on dull and constrained teaching methods with six months of an experiential style largely unknown to the students. Within this approach lies the core of Leap’s program, to teach students the skills that they need to succeed both in and out of the workplace. If you make a list of these Leap Skills, they might sound a lot like they belong on the side of a Girl Scout cookie box. Leadership, collaboration, communication, self-awareness, creativity and the list goes on. These are not skills that are easy to measure by any standard, and they are definitely not easy to teach in a classroom. Yet it is this exact difficult situation that Leap is approaching with a sense of urgency that makes me believe they won’t settle for a half-baked Girl Scout cookie PBL plan even if it takes them several years to get it right. A start-up is essentially project-based learning for adults, so it makes sense for Leap to take this step. We have a great deal of work ahead to make sure that everyone puts there all into this idea and it has definitely been a struggle so far. If we can manage to do that and it still doesn’t work, well then it’s back to the drawing board.