You're fired! That’s one of the last slides in the Buck Institute for Education’s Project Based Learning workshop, and it needs to be there. Eventually, in some project, most students will come to a point where their team doesn't, can’t, or won't work together and someone may need to leave. This could be the fault of bad project design or lack of effective management by the teacher, but sometimes it’s just a natural result of intensely collaborative relationships. That’s why it’s important to arrive, collaboratively, at a shared understanding about firing that applies not only in a single classroom, but fairly among all teachers engaged in PBL within a school. The key is to understand that the culture of firing that enters into PBL is something more than simply failing to “make the grade,” or a chance for team leaders to act out an episode of the Apprentice—it is an opportunity for learning.
During the course of a project, students come to appreciate those on their team who are doing the work necessary to move the team forward, and they distinguish such team members from those whose work is lacking (i.e., slackers), or whose work only allows for individual demonstrations of mastery (i.e., lone wolves). Once this distinction arises, students will want to fire those in the latter two categories, and it may be hard to stop them, even with a student-generated contract in place. Since the desire to fire is based on this appreciation of those who help the team versus those who don’t, experience suggests it is very important to begin conversations about collaboration in PBL not around firing, but rather around the structures of hiring that support teamwork in the classroom. If you want your students to stay on a team, focus on how to get hired, NOT on how to avoid getting fired.
As an example of best practices, consider ACE Leadership High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The program is organized entirely around the disciplines of architecture, construction and engineering (ACE), and serves a population that is majority free and reduced lunch from the city’s Latino community. The school’s Board of Directors is drawn from that community, the professional building community, and the city at large, and all are dedicated to providing a better quality ACE employee. ACE Leadership is dedicated to a PBL curriculum with lots of “hammer time” to prepare students for all aspects work in the ACE professions. Students are held to the same standards and accountability common to any core curriculum, but the approach of the curriculum is a truly assets-based opportunity for a student to learn, bilingually, to describe him- or herself in a way that will help land a job.
ACE students begin very early in their career to develop a resume—a set of simple bi-lingual talking points about the skills they bring to the job, and the skills they are developing through the course of their studies. Every trimester these skills are called upon and developed in their classes, but most importantly, in presentations of learning at the end of the term. Unlike typical presentations of learning, ACE students share their learning experiences and the lessons gained from their coursework by presenting their resumes to potential employers. Students seek feedback not only on the ACE skills they are learning, but also on their skills at presenting themselves. Students at ACE Leadership High School form a culture of hiring on campus every day of every term, and this culture of hiring is not only important for life after graduation, but also tremendously important during projects whenever the question of firing arises.
In a culture of firing, when the teacher is confronted by students who would like to remove one member of their team, or a member who would like to remove themselves from the team, this often presents a major problem. Solving it may involve consultations with the students, their parents, and even perhaps counseling staff or administrators. In a culture of hiring, ACE students or teams who determine that they can no longer work together have an immediate recourse in the resumes that they are required to develop, and in themselves. Fired students can seek employment with others teams, and teams who must fire a student have the possibility of hiring a replacement. Much as in a true labor market—or major league baseball—there will be more mobility during the early part of the project as initial teams are re-formed by a better understanding of the skills and talents each individual member brings to that team. Where “hiring” is an option, “firing,” is not so much an end to the project for that team member, as it is a signal that student(s) are making team and goal oriented decisions. Getting fired, and then getting rehired, becomes an integral part of the learning experience, not a sign of failure.
After they get over the initial shock of thinking about a culture of firing in their classroom or school, many teachers begin to wonder whether there might be some point that is too early in a student’s educational experience for firing. This is especially true for those who teach in the elementary grades—and they're right. If students are focused early on the culture of hiring, however, they will develop skills that will help them survive larger projects later in their education, and life skills that will make them not only employable, but re-employable after graduation. Given that the average late 20th century graduate will hold more than eleven jobs between the age of 18 and 44, it’s hard to argue that, properly scaffolded, this is anything but developmentally appropriate preparation for a 21st century that promises even more change. Helping students to understand their unique skills, assets and gifts is what a culture of hiring is all about. If we promote a culture of hiring, “You’re fired!” ceases to be a problem to be avoided, and comes to be a learning opportunity that will help students throughout the greatest course of all, the course of their lives.