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How to Embrace the Messy Middle

Q: When is a classroom project not a real project?
A: When the teacher disallows the existence of a “messy middle” in the course of a project.

Q: What is the messy middle?
A: The messy middle is the time in the project when you are truly stumped, when students hit a wall of uncertainty about how to proceed. It my not last long, perhaps just a few minutes. Or, it could potentially eat up large amounts of time that should be used to move the project forward.

Q: How much time should the messy middle take up?
A: If the messy middle is too long and big, most of us will be tempted to just throw up our hands and walk away. The teacher’s job is to manage the messy middle and intervene before students surrender.

Q: How can teachers actively manage the messy middle?
A: By telling students to expect it and to label it as an encouraging sign that the learning they are doing is truly authentic. Teachers need to anticipate the messy middle and have a sense of each student’s tolerance for it, allowing it to be larger for some students than others.

Q: What is a project without a messy middle?
A: A project without a messy middle leaves little room for discovery. Like life itself, authentic project-based learning can’t be 100% pre-scripted. The unexpected should always be expected because, as we all do, students will face uncertainties, surprises, and shifts in everything they do. This might take the form of a small part on a prototype that simply won’t work or a major paradigm shift in a foundational concept that drastically alters assumptions. Plans fluctuate. Malfunctions occur. Strategies fail. Events unfold. Adapting to unanticipated change requires practice, and there is no better way to practice that than in the smaller, bite-sized pieces that come from real project-based learning.

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