Real Project Based Learning Requires Real Conflict9 min read

What if the nursery rhyme went like this:

Jack and Jill went up a hill

to fetch a pail of water.

They filled it up and brought

it back to the farm.

The end

Do you think you’d sing that one to your kids? Would it have the staying power of the original version?

Of course not. Something has to happen for that story to keep being told for hundreds of years. Something has to go wrong for that story to be a story. Otherwise readers and listeners will just exclaim, “So what?

Jack has to bump his crown. Otherwise he’d never find out that Jill was willing to tumble after him.

Perhaps one of the most crucial elements of a story is the conflict. Conflict disrupts the ordinary. It gives characters a reason to act and break from the monotony of life. How can there be purpose without conflict? The purpose of something or someone can be found in the act of solving problems, conflicts that have arisen. Otherwise something just exists for the sake of existing.

This purposelessness has become a dominant presence in schools and classrooms. Students learn certain content because the government says so. They keep their heads off their desks because that is the rule. Students cram for tests because of the threat of a grade, and that information they studied so hard to remember the next day evaporates when the test is turned in. How many students work hard simply because their parent said so? And here is the scarier question: how many students do not work hard because their parents said so?

Is it any wonder why there is such a vitriol hate for standardized tests among teachers and students? The primary purpose of these exams is to appease lawmakers, not students and educators. And this lack of purpose breeds disdain, low performance, and a lack of engagement.

For a certain portion of the population, school without purpose works. Some students are good at playing the game. The concept of self-promotion is appealing, and the challenge of achieving better and better grades is enough to make this minority of students work hard. However, this is a minority. As a teacher, I have encountered many students who are apathetic to grades. The reward for high test scores and A’s and B’s are not enough to warrant strong and consistent effort. And yet, this is the dominant tactic American education uses to motivate students. It is using a broken and ineffective tool, and the results are obvious.

Twenty percent of Americans will not graduate high school this year.

They are quitting.

And I think the primary reason is because to far more than twenty percent of Americans, the system that consumes over eight hours of a student’s day, is the primary source of stress and effort, the place that consumes the bulk of one’s childhood- does not include purpose.

Stephen Pressfield writes in his book, The War of Art:

“In order for a book (or any project or enterprise) to hold our attention for the length of time it takes to unfold itself, it has to plug into some internal perplexity or passion that is of paramount importance to us.”

This importance can be found by introducing real and authentic conflict into our classrooms. Not the kind of conflict where fighting ensues or feelings get hurt. The conflict where the regular patterns of life are disrupted. The regular girl becomes a hero. The student within a bubble, who thinks the world revolves around their habits, their music, their friends, their life- finds out not all is well in the world, and there is something she can do about it.

The work students are doing in the classroom needs real conflict. In order for the material we present in our classroom to grasp a student’s attention long enough for them engage with it, it needs problems for them to solve. We live in a big world with big problems, and sometimes the issues students tackle are big. Chances are, there are people in your community who deal with hunger on a daily basis. Racism probably exists within your city or town. Homeless people probably live underneath an overpass near you. Believe it or not, slavery still exists, and the slaves are young women who are trafficked in every major city in the United States.

These are big problems that your students can tackle in math class, and in English, and science, and any other subject in school.

There are also conflicts of lesser global importance for your students to engage in, and those belong just as much in your epic classroom, because they are engaging students in learning so they can be prepared to tackle big stuff later on. Conflicts like debating about the meaning of justice, interpreting how something a poet said 200 years ago relates to the present, or creating a piece of art that lasts- conflicts do not have to leave the walls of the school to impact and engage students.

Conflict can be huge, and conflict can be intimate. But regardless of its size and scope, it must be in the stories in your classroom. When planning and devising your projects, one of your primary goals should be to identify a conflict for your students to wrestle with. Quite often, this conflict can be found in the content you already deliver. It just take some new practices to uncover it.

I have a few World History content standards about a concept known as imperialism. They look like this:

Imperialism – Analyze the political, economic, and social causes and consequences of imperialism by: using historical and modern maps and other evidence to analyze and explain the causes and global consequences of nineteenth-century imperialism, including encounters between imperial powers (Europe, Japan) and local peoples in India, Africa, Central Asia, and East Asia (National Geography Standard 16, p. 216); describing the connection between imperialism and racism, including the social construction of race; comparing British policies in South Africa and India, French policies in Indochina, and Japanese policies in Asia (See 7.3.3) (National Geography Standard 13, p. 212); analyze the responses to imperialism by African and Asian people (See 6.6.3).    

Exciting stuff, right?

When I start the process of planning my project and outlining the story, I know my goal is to think up a conflict for my students to work through. Once I have some ideas about what the conflict will be, I can begin to plan the rest of the project and conceive of ways students will solve it.

But before I can figure out what the conflict will be, I have to identify themes that live within these content standards. A theme is a central idea or point found in the story. In Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, a dominant theme is family bonds, or in Star Wars there is the theme of Good vs. Evil. The story of your projects need themes as well. They serve as a focus point for your students to expand from, as well as give an opportunity for them to grow in broad ways when learning specific content. Without themes and underlying messages, stories are shallow and will not have a lasting impact. That is why you should try to identify a theme or themes within your standards before any other planning takes place. You must be able to answer the infamous question, “Why are we doing this?” before making students actually do the work.

For this set of standards, I see a theme of dominance of one group over another, a common theme seen throughout world history and many of the other content standards I cover in a year. I discovered the theme by closely reading the standards, using prior knowledge, and a bit of research in the beginning stages of this project.

Next, I needed to find a way for students to interact with this content. For them to truly engage with imperialism as well as the theme, I had to figure out what the conflict in their story would be. This is step 2 in planning an epic project.

I started with some more detailed research, specifically about places and people listed in the standards . Here is a little bit of what I uncovered:

In 1856, the country of Germany began invading a very small kingdom in East Africa called Burundi. They started a century of pillaging the land, harsh violence, political upheaval, and outright stealing of Burundi’s natural resources. They took over this land with overwhelming force, and caused enemy tribes who had very clear boundaries with each other to share space. This is imperialism.

When Europeans finally left this once rich and beautiful kingdom, it looked very much as it does today: locked in civil war and in a constant state of poverty. A direct result of imperialism. This happened all over Africa, and it is a contributing factor as to why many African nations are impoverished. And when nations like the United States sends money, food, and unpurchased clothing from thrift stores- a small Band Aid is applied to a large gash. The Age of Imperialism supposedly ended a long time ago, but the effects of it are still very present.

I did some reading, and now I’ve got information to work with. The next step is to write out all of the questions I have about the subject.

Why was places like Burundi specifically targeted for imperialism?

What does Burundi look like now?

How can we connect with people there?

Is there anyone from Burundi in my city?

What is being done about this problem?

Who can I reach out to?

You have to ask questions to find the conflict your students will uncover. You might not need to answer all of the questions you write down, but it is within this list that ideas can arise. After writing down many questions I had after my research (there are more than I listed above), I Googled Burundi Grand Rapids (my city), and learned that there is an agency in our area that works with a bank in Burundi, Africa.


So I gave them a call, and met a woman named Trace, who spent the past several years working in Burundi, came and spoke to my class about what she did there. Trace shared all about the poverty in Burundi and the effects it has on people.

She also shared ways this poverty can be addressed, but it’s not being done enough. My students were hanging on every one of her words.

When she left that morning, the students brainstormed ways they could address this problem. They unsettled by what they heard, and wanted to do something about. A conflict had been introduced.

A share about what they did to address this conflict in my book. But I’ll provide a little spoiler here: It was incredible. While engaging with the history content, kids were also fully engaged in helping be apart of the solution to Burundi’s poverty.

The content and the conflict were intertwined. This is at the heart of project based learning. The project doesn’t just come at the end of learning, it’s there directing it. Because students were invested in this conflict, they were also engaged in finding a resolution for it.

And this engagement is not something they’ll soon forget.

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Trevor Muir

I believe every student has the potential for greatness. And I believe every educator can be equipped to unlock that potential.