About a decade ago, I had a group of students who had a great concept. They would make a paper mural. It would be shaped like the U.S.-Mexico border and it would have a picture of the Statue of Liberty in the middle with a modern family from Mexico on the right and immigrants from Ellis Island in the early 1900s on the left. They cut tiny pieces of various colors from magazines and painstakingly glued these on before school. They created the whole border wall from papier-mâché. It was a powerful, symbolic work of art from their own lived experience.

However, we ran into a wall when it came to presenting our wall. We wanted to share it on First Fridays with the art community. However, I couldn’t figure out how to make the launch happen. My students suggested that we send it to the district office but again, they didn’t want it.

In the end, it was a failed launch.

I had other projects fizzle in a matter of two or three days, like the Fantasy Football math project that didn’t take hold or the career exploration documentary or the video game project (we had created games on Scratch but wanted to make games you could actually download on your phone). Sometimes it was timing. Other times, it was my own incompetence.

But here’s the thing. You will have failed projects as a teacher. Every time we choose to innovate, we step into the unknown. There’s no guarantee it will work.

innovation impracticality impractical john spencerHowever, it turns out that abandoned projects are a part of any creative work. This goes beyond the teaching profession. It’s sort of the secret that nearly every creative profession doesn’t talk about. Makers are always abandoning projects.

 

Creative Types Often Abandon Projects

I’m a maker. I’m often creating blog posts, books, and sketch videos. But I also like doing hands-on STEM-style projects at home as well. But being a maker,  I often have projects that don’t work out. I used to feel guilty about those projects (similar to feeling guilty about failing to finish books), like somehow I was a quitter or I lacked grit or I was taking the easy way out.

However, as I began to interview painters and engineers and filmmakers and architects and entrepreneurs, I found that this was a universal experience. To be productive, you have to be good at quitting. You need to know when a project isn’t working and cut it loose. I’ve come to realize that every maker has a cutting room floor with a ton of work that didn’t make the “final cut.” We iterate and revise and put things on hold. And that’s okay. It’s part of the creative journey.

Regardless of the industry or the discipline, there are a few ways we abandon projects. Note that these go on a spectrum from unfinished to finished.

  • Scrap It: This is a permanent delete option, where you realize that the project was simply a really bad idea.
  • File It Away: Here’s where you feel stuck, so you leave the project unfinished and then potentially pick it up months or even years later.
  • Iterate: Here, you don’t shelve the project entirely, but instead, you choose to make massive revisions. You might even mash it up with a different project.
  • Keep it private: With this option, you still finish your project but you ultimately choose not to share it with an audience. Here, you’re not abandoning the project so much as abandoning the launch.

Note that some of the most prolific creative types of all kinds of projects in all four of those categories.

 

My Epic Fails

The following is a list of epic fails from the last two years. Okay, that’s an overstatement. Most of these projects aren’t actually “epic fails” so much as projects I abandoned. Some of these are projects I abandoned when I realized they couldn’t be fixed. Others are projects I put on the shelf that I might try and pick up at a later time. Still, others are projects I finished but ultimately chose not to share with a larger audience. Sometimes, it’s more of a short run. In other words, you create something that you think will be a longer series but then tap out early. That was the case with Classroom Questions, a podcast I co-created with my friend,  AJ Juliani. We recorded a decent number of episodes before ultimately realizing that we didn’t want to spend our evenings recording a podcast (opting instead for family time). So, we scrapped it and ended up co-writing two books together.

  1. Violet Bolt: This is a book my wife and I planned out. It’s about a girl who designs gadgets for superheroes and ultimately gets pulled into their world and has to use her creativity to save the day. I wrote the first draft and scrapped it. My wife and I talked through a new plot and I picked it up again and completely rewrote it from scratch. We may someday come back to it but right now, it’s on the shelf. We actually talked about recreating it as a serial podcast.
  2. Phil in the Bubble: This is an animated short about a boy taking a test and the bubbles won’t stay still. They eventually fall down, rolling around, and ultimately converge and take him away from the test and on an adventure. I tried drawing it by hand last year and realized that I still have way too much to learn about animation. For now, I’m filing it away.
  3. Pinball Machine: I had a dream of creating a steampunk style pinball machine that would have an old school industrial feel but also keep track of score using Python and Raspberry Pi. But I soon realized that this was way more complicated than I had first imagined. This project is in the “scrap it” category.
  4. The Awesomely Awkward Adventures of  Taco Tony: I wrote this short chapter book for my son Micah. It’s about a superhero bionic taco who lives a sheltered life but then has to stop a giant robot from wrecking the city. I actually thought of illustrating it and releasing it but then decided it might be too weird, so it ended up as a fun bedtime story instead. You can read the story on this Google Doc but essentially, we chose not to launch it.
  5. Welcome to the Club: I created one video for my cohort and thought I would do others in a series of fun, light-hearted videos for them. However, the semester got busy and I had to cut this project loose and decided to scrap it.
  6. Home Makerspace: We were going to convert the garage into a full-blown makerspace or maybe build one from a shed. But then we realized that we still needed our garage for things like Christmas decoration storage and a space to work out. We might do this someday. However, for now, it’s back on the shelf.
  7. Food Truck Manifesto: This was a short, visual-oriented book that I was going to co-write with my friend Jochem from the Netherlands. Unfortunately, the project fizzled due to timing issues.
  8. How to Train a Human: My kids and I started working on this project. The premise was that a dog gets adopted and then writes a diary about how to train his humans to behave properly only to be confused by our world. It was going to be a series of comic strips done in a .gif style. Unfortunately,  none of us could draw a dog very well, so we scrapped it after a few days. I might pick this back up later but I’m filing it away for now.
  9. The New Teacher Academy Podcast: I started a podcast for new teachers but I later decided to change it up and do a blog and Facebook group with my friend, Trevor Muir, instead. So, this was one we chose to overhaul and iterate upon.
  10. Launch Teams: AJ and I had a concept of a combined set of chapter books and curriculum using the LAUNCH process. However, once we sat down to work on it, we realized it wasn’t a “heck yeah” project and we let it go. We filed this one away.
  11. UX Webinar: I created a full webinar video on how to use UX design for course creation. However, I put this mini-project on hold when I realized that it was a little dry. I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to it and fix it.
  12. History Mystery Projects: I created a full History Mystery project about ships buried deep underground in San Francisco and I thought I would do the same thing with other historical events. But I lost interest and never continued it. I think I’m scrapping this one.

So, there you have it. Twelve abandoned projects. Meanwhile, I’ve created courses, blog posts, podcasts, free writing prompts, free toolkits, a set of STEM challenges, creative thinking structures, and my first draft in an upcoming book. I can look at those abandoned projects as lost productivity or I can realize that every single abandoned project was a creative risk. Every project was a chance to engage in creative thinking. Every project helped me hone my skills. I can’t consider any of those projects a waste of time because they all helped me become more creative.

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What This Means for Teachers

You will have failed projects. Students might be disinterested and unmotivated. Or the project starts taking way too long and you know it’s not working. Maybe it’s an alignment issue as you realize that your students aren’t mastering the standards. Sometimes, you’ll iterate and modify. Or you might finish and say, “that wasn’t great but at least it’s done.” Other times, you’ll have to go back to your students and say, “we need to scrap this project.” Although this isn’t fun, it’s a chance to model humility and to show students that sometimes in creative work, you need to quit.

It helps to treat each lesson as an experiment:

I’ve used the following reflection questions to help me figure out if it’s time to abandon a project:

Why do I feel this project isn’t working?

Is this something I can tweak and revise or do I need to abandon this? Could we try this again later?

What are the contextual factors making this a challenge? How could I better address these challenges?

Is there a better way to teach these standards? A new project concept? A new approach?

How will the students respond? Will they be relieved or disappointed? How will I help them navigate these emotions?

Note that these reflective questions help spur my internal monologue. However, it sometimes helps to talk to another teacher or to bring your class into the discussion. When I taught eighth grade, we would discuss these ideas in our student leadership team (which consisted of any kid who wanted to bring a sack lunch in on Thursdays and help make class-wide decisions).

This idea of quitting also has implications for students.

 

What this Means for Students

We often see phrases like, “never give up”  and “winners never quit” in schools. However, students need to know the art of quitting. They need to learn how to be reflective about their work and figure out when it’s time to abandon a project. As educators, we can help them to determine when it’s time to pivot, quit, or persevere.

Take Genius Hour projects:

When my students did Genius Hour projects, I had some students who wanted to change topics every other day. As a guide, I would help them to reflect on why they were wanting to change. Was it that they had too many interests? Was it the fear of missing out? Were they afraid that they wouldn’t do a good enough job on the finished product? In these moments, I had to push them a little bit to decide on one thing and to finish. Other times, though, they worked on a project and ran into a barrier they couldn’t get past. Sometimes, I’d have to say, “I need you to persevere and keep going even if it’s not fun right now.” Often, they were just experiencing project fatigue. However, other times they were truly done and needed to shelve the product and start something new.

Initially, I would cajole students to finish their projects. I would threaten an F as an incomplete. However, I realized that the focus isn’t the product. It’s not even the process. It’s the learning. A student could have an unfinished project that was a failed experiment and still manage to master the standards. So, I would ask the students the following questions:

Why do you want to abandon this project?

How far along are you on the project? Are you wanting to quit because you’re not meeting deadlines or because the project really is a failed experiment?

What would happen if you finished it?

Do you want to get rid of it completely, put it on hold, or do a rehaul and revision?

What would you need from me so that you can succeed on this project?  (i.e. time or resources)

Although these are self-reflection questions, they are also questions you can use in one-on-one conferencing with students. When this happens, your goal is to get to the root cause of the quitting. Is it fear or is it a realization that the work isn’t worth pursuing? Are they wanting to quit because they are behind and haven’t managed time wisely or have they made attempts and it’s simply not working?

Note, this is why I love design thinking. It helps students stay on track with their time and it build interdependency. And yet, even so, there will be times when your most self-directed, hardest working students will want to abandon a project because it actually isn’t working. And that’s okay. They need to learn when to quit.

 

What are your options when students aren’t finishing projects?

So, you’re at a point in a project where a student isn’t finishing the project. Here are a few options:

  1. Ask students to complete the projects on their own time. You might need to provide a time and place if they don’t have the resources at home.
  2. Excuse students from another assignment or project to give them extended time to finish this initial project. This is ideal for students who need to do a massive overhaul.
  3. Allow students to quit a project when it truly is a “failed experiment.” Help find ways for students in this place to succeed on another project.
  4. If the project is actually going well, you might need to affirm students and ask them to stick with their project and with their deadlines.

There’s an added layer with group projects, where different members might have different ideas around next steps. In these moments, you might need to meet with the small group and talk through the next steps together.

It also helps to take a preventative approach. When students use the LAUNCH Cycle as a creative framework within PBL, they have specific stages they go through, which minimizes some of the desire to quit out of project fatigue. They engage in project management, which reduces the likelihood of giving up because they are falling behind. Because they have a thorough ideation phase, they tend to have a solid idea that they don’t want to abandon. And because there is more ownership, there’s a desire to see it succeed.

Even then, there are times when students will need to let go of a project. And that’s okay. It’s part of what it means to be a maker.

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John Spencer

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 me

One Comment

  • John Faig says:

    An innovative approach towards improving your craft. Often, teachers are very reluctant to do something new that they haven’t mastered yet. The pushback I hear is that they don’t want to look “bad” in front of the students. I believe that this hesitance is a symptom that the teacher doesn’t have a strong relationship with his/her students. I also hear concerns about equity when you try something in one class and not another.

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