I’m sitting in my office next to a dozing dog, staring at the cursor on my computer. This is it. I’m in the final leg of my dissertation. I’ve outlined chapters four and five and now I simply need to write it all out. This has been months in the making and all for a finished product that will be read by less than a hundred people. And yet, I’m thrilled to be doing this. Don’t get me wrong. Quantitative methodology doesn’t come easily to me. I’ve always had a fair amount of math anxiety. However, I am grateful for this experience.
See, I love statistics. I geeked out over The Drunkards Walk and How Not to Be Wrong. I read 538 on a regular basis and I’m about to re-read The Signal and the Noise. However, even though I’m a pretty solid consumer of statistics, I am understanding the concepts at a much deeper level through the process of gathering data and analyzing the statistics in my dissertation. In other words, the value of a dissertation isn’t that it will change the world. Rather, it’s that it will change me. Or at least, it will change the way I think about the world. I will learn to think like a statistician.
I see this phenomenon all around me. My sons understand pitching at a far deeper level than I do because they are both pitchers. While I have spent years watching the game, I have never had to stand on the mound and decide between a four-seam or two-seam fastball. My wife understands music on a deeper level because she took composition classes as a music major in college.
This was a core idea that Jerome Bruner advocated. It’s the notion that students learn art to think like artists. It’s the idea that they should learn to think like scientists and engineers and historians. For Bruner, students needed to engage in meaningful simulations where they would develop the ability to think in a particular discipline.
I saw this as an eighth grade teacher. I could teach about empathy but they would truly grow in empathy when they engaged in design thinking in a way that centered on empathy. I could teach them media literacy and digital citizenship and informational reading but they would gain these skills at a deeper level when they engaged in journalism. If we want them to be better consumers of digital media, they need to create and share their own digital media.
The Surprising Relationship Between Creating and Consuming
It’s easy to pit creativity and consumption against each other. However, critical consuming is vital for creative work. When you engage in critical consuming, you become more inspired and ultimately, you will create better content.
Case in point, I still remember sitting in my sister’s Pontiac Grand Am when she placed the cassette in the tape deck. After a few hissing sounds, I listened skeptically to the repetitive chord progression of the sparse-sounding”Round Here,” followed by the fuller, eclectic sounding “Omaha.” Although this was a new album, it felt vaguely familiar – like sitting on the shag carpet listening to my dad play The Band and Van Morrison with a touch of the popular grunge sound of the time. Although August and Everything After would eventually become a classic, as an awkward teenager, I was able to pick up on the bands that had influenced Adam Duritz.
If you think about it, just about every band you listen to began as a copycat act. The lead guitarist cut their teeth playing “Stairway to Heaven” on an acoustic guitar. Whether they wore out records or curated a Spotify playlist, most musical artists describe geeking out on their favorite bands and singers in their adolescence.
In other words, consuming led to creativity. But that doesn’t always happen. As teachers, we see students spending hours staring at YouTube videos without ever taking the creative leap. But why does this happen? It turns out, students need to be more than just consumers. They need to be critical consumers.
Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When you look at makers, they are often critical consumers of the same type of work they create. Chefs love great meals. Musicians listen to music. Architects often visit new cities and tour buildings to find inspiration. Filmmakers watch videos. Engineers often study objects within their world. Computer scientists view other people’s lines of code. Writers read tons of books. Artists visit art museums. Fashion designers are constantly looking at other people’s outfits.
In other words, creative types consume what they love.
There’s often this ongoing cycle that starts with critical consuming. This consuming is intentional and mindful. Here, you are asking questions and seeking out new ideas. You’re curating information and geeking out on your craft. This leads to inspiration. You might mash-up multiple ideas or take a different angle or a fresh perspective to a problem. Often, you plan and design. But sometimes you play and experiment. This, in turn, leads to creative work. This could involve solving a problem, planning an event, creating art, building a system, or planning an event.
But the more you create, the better you understand your craft, which leads to a deeper ability to consume critically, where they find more inspiration, and the cycle continues. This, again, is why I understand statistics better than ever before. I am a far better consumer of statistical information because I am learning the process of quantitative research. Being a better maker will make me a better taker and being a better taker will make me a better maker.
Why PBL Makes You a Better Creator and Consumer
With project-based learning, students get the opportunity to see the connection between creating and consuming.
Often, students engage in research and then later engage in creating some type of prototype. This could be digital content, a service, an event, or a physical prototype. But there is an ongoing element of consuming to build on prior knowledge that leads to making, which then lets students understand the content at an even deeper level.
When A.J. Juliani and I first developed the LAUNCH Cycle, we explicitly included two phases of critical consuming. The first was an inquiry-based Ask Tons of Questions and the second was the phase of critical research, which we called Understand the Process or Problem. While these phases were implied in other design thinking models, we chose to explicitly include these phases so that students would gain deeper background knowledge before ideating. This promotes equity and honor’s student agency.
This is one of the many benefits of PBL. When done well, students who engage in project-based learning become better consumers and better creators.
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