Students Need to Own the Project Management Process

Note that I use the terms “organization,” “creative process,” and “project management” interchangeably. I’m basically suggesting that students should own the workflow process.

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I like Microsoft Word. I like the way it handles autocorrect when I start typing way too fast. I like the interface that’s free of distractions. I like working on something that isn’t connected to a browser. I like the functionality of it when it comes to issues of formatting. I even like how easy it is to right-click and find a better verb using the thesaurus. Or, in many cases, using the thesaurus to check a homonym (is it ladder or latter?).

I get it. I’m a techie. I’m supposed to prefer Google Docs. However, I am more likely to use Google Drive for collaboration, brainstorming, file storage, and systems thinking. For example, I prefer Google Spreadsheets to Excel and I use the spreadsheets for everything from doing research to project management (breaking down the tasks and checking progress) to keeping budgets.

My process might seem like a mess to someone on the outside, but for me, it’s simple, organized and designed for project flow. I don’t expect anyone else to understand this process. It’s my personal approach to creative productivity that I’ve designed for myself in order to hit a constant state of flow as I work.

A Personalized Approach to Project Management

A few days ago, I had a conversation with my friend Jon Harper. He shared his creative process for writing a book and it’s nothing like my approach. He starts with different types of notecards that he lays out spatially. By contrast, I start with a cheap old-school composition book where I sketch-note my ideas. He starts with stories and looks for ideas and themes while I tend to start with big ideas and then plug in the stories afterward.

As we geeked out on the writing process, he mentioned something that stuck with me. “Imagine what it’s like for a student who has to learn six or seven productivity systems and switch back and forth throughout the day.”

It has me thinking about my experiences as a student. I had teachers who required us to keep binders with specific tabs and page numbers. I had others that required notebooks. I had another teacher that required we use color-coded categories for my tabs. I had another teacher that had us use a system with sticky notes that had titles and symbols.

I hated learning these systems.

I realize that teachers designed these systems to help us learn how to manage projects and stay organized. However, I bristled against these external requirements. I hated the physical, tactile messiness of sticky notes or notecards. I have always preferred a clean, minimalist workspace where I can clear my mind and focus. I hated binders because the rings always bent and it was a pain to have to sort things according to someone else’s categories. I hated the act of hole-punching papers. It was an annoying act that disrupted my creative flow.

But the hardest part was the way I had to jump back and forth, complying with a new system every forty-five minutes.

I think Jon Harper is right. It’s tough to be a student and have to switch between various productivity and organizational systems. And yet, when schools have noticed this reality, they tend to shift toward standardization rather than personalization. They require all students to carry agendas and all teachers to check the agendas. They require every student to use Cornell Notes and every teacher to do binder checks. They push compliance rather than empowering students to own the productivity process.

It’s not surprising, then, that so many freshman in college struggle with task analysis, organization, and project management. Suddenly, they are on their own without anyone telling them how to manage their own productivity and they often feel lost.

Teaching Students to Self-Manage Their Productivity

I wonder what it would mean to let students own the productivity process. I realize that we might have to teach certain skills, like project management. It can be tough to breakdown a task, set deadlines, and monitor progress. Some students struggle with things like keeping a calendar or staying organized.

And yet . . .

If you take a look at productivity experts, they tend to focus on big ideas and systems thinking rather than specific tools. Take David Allen’s Getting Things DoneHe will point out a specific strategy, like having a place where you dump your ideas and clear your mind. However, that might involve a journal, a notecard, a pad of paper, or a smart phone. The tools are personalized, but the strategies are universal.

Although I didn’t connect with the book’s style (a little too corporate for my taste) I still use concepts of capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage. But none of those things require a specific tool or template. Instead, he offers a flexible system that you can modify with your own tools and format.

You see a similar trend in Cal Newport’s Deep Work. He shares ideas about staying focused, getting things done, and reaching a state of flow. He delves into the ideas of reducing cognitive load and clearing out distractions. As Newport puts it, “we should not be surprised that deep work struggles to compete against the shiny thrum of tweets, likes, tagged photos, walls, posts, and all the other behaviors that we’re now taught are necessary for no other reason than that they exist.” 

A little nuance here. Cal Newport misses some of the value of engaging with the world. Those tweets and photos and updates are deeply human and deeply relational. I actually think it’s critical that makers learn how to engage with an authentic community. However, his criticism is valid. We live in a world of distractions and immediate amusement. Deep work can be a real challenge.

When I think of students who struggle with productivity, they often fail to reach a place of deep work. They are distracted. They aren’t getting started. In these moments, they probably need some of the ideas from Cal Newport. They are overwhelmed. They struggle with prioritizing and categorizing. In these moments, they probably need some of the ideas of David Allen. It would seem that they need systems and philosophies rather than rigid requirements on how to be organized. They need paradigm shifts and mindsets rather than binder checks or daily agendas.

What if we approached these skills in a more personalized way? What if we let kids choose between a paper agenda or a Google Calendar?  What if they could decide between using a binder or a notebook or a Google Drive account with folders? What if we provided them with tutorials and the resources and conversations about creative processes and project management but we said, “find a way that works for you and run with it?” What if we taught them about things like cognitive load and flow theory? What if they learned how to think about productivity in a way that went beyond compliance?

If we really want to empower students to be makers, we need to let them own the processes for project management and creativity productivity.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

3 responses

  1. Your last paragraph is key (love the last sentence). Why don’t we discuss project management skills/approaches and the notion of Flow. I love the idea of engaging learners about their own productivity as part of the project itself

  2. […] post about students controlling their management system process spoke to me on several levels. As a teacher, I had a system, but realized it does not work […]

  3. I really like the idea of giving the students the freedom to choose the media for projects and the organization. I tell my students that I give them the “skeleton” or outline, what they do with it is up to them, are they going to dress their skeleton to play in the mud or with a tuxedo to go to the prom? When I thought the skeleton to my 7th graders we would actually do this exercise so they could actually see how far some students would take this idea, and their grades. Your article also hit home with me today, after getting my students set up to work with Chrome book, the only major source of computers that we have at my school. Personally and some of my students also express their frustrations today with the limitation that we are putting on our students by using this technology. We are changing one technology, paper and pen for Chrome books. When are we going to be able to give our students a choice, a real choice of what technology to use. After reading your article I think I want to give my students the option of using only the Chrome books, a combination of paper and Chrome book, or maybe some are not quite ready to leave the paper pen behind. I truly think that for change to happen and learning to occur we need to allow for choice.

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