From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 7|No 3|November-December|1997


   Of Chickens and Projects

by Henry Olds

BBN Learning Systems and Technologies
GTE Internetworking

Consider the following epigram:

"I was good at everything
-- honest, everything! --
until I started being here with you [in school].
I was good at laughing,
playing dead,
being king!
Yeah, I was good at everything!
But now I'm only good at everything on Saturdays and Sundays . . ."

The Geraniums Just Died on the Windowsill, but Teacher You Went Right On p. 38

Ideally, schools should be places where children have lots of opportunities, every day, to demonstrate that they are good at many things. But most schools, unfortunately, aren't those kinds of places. A project-based curriculum is intended to improve the environment for learning in schools -- to give students a fuller spectrum of opportunities for building their strength and confidence as learners.

Jerold Zacharias, a professor at MIT and one of the key leaders in improving the science curriculum in the 1960's, once said that children come to schools different, and it is the job of schools to make them more different.

Again, a project-based curriculum is intended to engage and reward differences in students' abilities, intelligences, and learning styles.

The Most Wonderful Egg in the World is a modern fable by Helme Heine that provides a delightful perspective on the topic of supporting and appreciating differences.

Three chickens, who are quite different in appearance, go to the king to settle their quarrel about who is the most beautiful.

The king, who has the wisdom of Solomon, points out that what the chickens can do is more important than what they look like. In other words, like the wise teacher, he suggests they engage in some projects so their performances can be better assessed.

Of course, the most significant performance for a chicken is laying eggs. Dotty performs first.
Her egg is perfect because it meets most closely the expectations that everyone has for the ideal egg.

A large share of most schools' expectations for project performances fall into a single prototypical paradigm. It's a perfectly good set of expectations, but it is not , as our story goes on to show, the only set.

David Hawkins, a philosopher of science and another leader of the curriculum reform movement of the 1960's, once said that the greatest harm we do to children in schools is to insist that there is only one best or right way to think about something.

As Stalky sits down to lay her egg, everyone knows that she can't lay a more perfect egg. When Stalky's huge egg appears,
everyone has to make a slight adjustment in their expectations in order to give due credit to her magnificent performance. It can be appreciated because of its size, even if it may be somewhat lacking on the perfection dimension.

Most teachers are able to recognize and reward the project that exceeds expectations in terms of its scale, even if it lacks a bit in terms of perfection, because we typically do appreciate and honor grand ideas, as long as they stay recognizably close to our expectations.

When Plumy sits down to lay her egg, everyone knows that she can't lay a more perfect or bigger egg. Interestingly, as the king and the crowd wait for Plumy's performance, they do have some thoughts in their heads (shown in the illustration). Clearly, Stalky's performance, and their acceptance of it, have opened their minds to the possibility that there just might be some new, unanticipated dimension that Plumy's egg might open. One chicken thinks of the smallest egg, one of a heart-shaped egg, and the King, naturally, imagines a golden egg.

But no one is prepared for the egg that Plumy does lay -- a perfectly square (really cubic)
egg with every face a different color. Indeed, as the king says, this egg is truly fantastic -- almost unimaginable, even to very broad-minded chickens. In fact, one wonders at this point if all the hens are nodding because they truly accept the wonder of this egg or because they know it's a good idea to agree with the king.

When students create products that violate our expectations in fairly serious ways, like Plumy's colorful, cubic egg, there are only a few teachers who are able, like the wise King, to stretch their mental models far enough to accept those products and assess them appropriately. Yet it is my experience in classrooms that when students are given some latitude to express their full selves, as they must be when working on projects (as opposed to filling in workbook pages), then it would not be at all unusual for about a third of the projects, as our story suggests, to fall into a category that significantly stretches our expectations in one way or another.

Looked at one way, these unusual products are the surprising and remarkable wonderful ideas (celebrated by Eleanor Duckworth in her article," The Having of Wonderful Ideas"), creative solutions, or flights of fancy that are occasionally noted and appreciated by some teachers. Looked at another way, they are the distressing deviations that are all too often summarily dismissed by most teachers overly concerned about students getting things right.

The teacher's ability to respond wisely to such unusual products is important not just for the particular students involved, but for the entire class. It exemplifies to the entire learning community (the class) how they are to be treated as learners. It sets a powerful precedent. It enables the "creative" student to continue to be creative, and it encourages the reluctant or conservative student to be more of a risk taker. It supports everyone in their efforts to stretch a bit beyond what's easy and comfortable -- that is, it supports real learning (which requires that something be ventured).

The king in his great wisdom recognizes that it is impossible to say which egg is the most wonderful. Indeed, they are all wonderful for different reasons, and therefore all three chickens deserve to be considered princesses and have paintings of their products hung in the palace. Their specialness has been affirmed, and they can now embark on other tasks with renewed strength and confidence. And, as has been pointed out before by many wise teachers, it is this strength and confidence in oneself as a learner that is fundamentally critical for continued success in school and in life.

The Most Wonderful Egg in the World by Helme Heine
ISBN: 0689711174
Published by Aladdin Paperbacks, 1987
The Having of Wonderful Ideas' & Other Essays on Teaching & Learning by Eleanor Duckworth
ISBN: 0807735132
Published by Teachers College Pr, March 1996

Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings, photographs and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

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