The Creative Educator has published my fifth article in a series on effective project-based learning, A Good Prompt is Worth 1,000 Words. The text of this article is below. PDFs of the entire series may be downloaded and shared.

I hope you and your colleagues enjoy it!

Previous articles in the series:

  1. What Makes a Good Project?
  2. Developing Projects That Endure
  3. The Genius of Print
  4. Less Us, More Them!
  5. A Good Prompt is Worth 1,000 Words.

A Good Prompt is Worth 1,000 Words
© June 2012 – Gary S. Stager

Over the past thirty years I have written curricula and taught curriculum writing. During the course of my career, I have seen curriculum used as a weapon and as a security blanket. Curriculum is often arbitrary, created far away from the students subjected to it.

Seymour Papert used to ask why, if we understand that at best the curriculum covers a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the universe, do we spend so much time quibbling over which billionth of a percent is so important?

A Good Prompt
I know that much is expected of today’s teachers and students. I also know that the richest learning experiences and greatest demonstrations of student mastery have emerged from situations where maximum flexibility is exercised. If deep learning is the goal, then when it comes to curriculum, less is more!

For years, I have watched kids in my classes do remarkable work without being taught to do so. I marveled at how participants in the Constructing Modern Knowledge institute could write a crazy project idea on the wall and then accomplish it within a matter of hours or days. I watched as graduate students told 10th grade English students to use their computers to compose a piece of instrumental music telling the story of Lady Macbeth; and regardless of the student’s range of expertise, they nailed it.

During my doctoral research I formed a pedagogical hypothesis which I believe answers the question of how a learner is able to accomplish more, often in a short period of time, than they could have ever achieved following a traditional curricular scope and sequence. I call this hypothesis A Good Prompt is Worth 1,000 Words!

With the following four variables in place, a learner can exceed expectations.

1. A good prompt, motivating challenge, or thoughtful question
2. Appropriate materials
3. Sufficient time
4. Supportive culture, including a range of expertise

The genius of this approach is that it is self-evident. If you lack one of the four elements, it is obvious what needs to be done.

Us or Them?
In my article “Less Us, More Them,” I argue that anytime an adult feels it necessary to intervene in an educational transaction, they should take a deep breath and ask, “Is there some way I can do less and grant more authority, responsibility, or agency to the learner?”

The same is true for prompt setting. The best prompts emerge from a learner’s curiosity, experience, discovery, wonder, challenge, or dilemma. However, all too often teachers design prompts for student inquiry or projects.

If you absolutely must design a prompt for students, here are three tips you should follow.

1. Brevity. The best prompts fit on a Post-It! Note. They are clear, concise, and self-evident.

2. Ambiguity. The learner should be free to satisfy the prompt in their own voice, perhaps even employing strategies you never imagined.

3. Immunity to assessment. The best projects push up against the persistence of reality. What is a B+ poem or musical composition? How does an engineering project earn an 87? Most mindful work succeeds or fails. Students will want to do the best job possible when they care about their work and know that you put them ahead of a grade. If students are collaborating and regularly engaged in peer review or editing, then the judgment of an adult is really unnecessary. Worst of all, it is coercive and often punitive.

Good prompts do not burden a learner, but set them free. Add thematic units, interdisciplinary projects, and a classroom well equipped with whimsy, objects-to-think-with, and comfort, and you set the stage for authentic student achievement.

Attend Constructing Modern Knowledge, the world’s premiere project-based learning event!

I am fortunate to be invited to work in schools all over the world. Regardless of the setting, I find myself leaving educators I meet with the same four words of advice, “Less Us, More Them!”

Knowledge is a consequence of experience. Understanding is the result of existing knowledge accommodating and explaining new experiences. If we focus on a handful of powerful ideas, students learn more. The role of the teacher is to create and facilitate powerful, productive contexts for learning.

Education policy often confuses teaching and learning. Learning is not the direct result of having been taught. If you have spent any time working with learners, you know that you can’t simply talk at them, or do something to them, and expect that they have learned anything. A robot can deliver curriculum; great teachers provide much more.

Young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity, but need their teachers to craft learning environments that reduce stress levels, interruptions, and confusion. When a teacher creates a well–designed prompt that capitalizes on student curiosity, kids can embark on complex, long-term learning adventures.

Inquiry begins with what students want to know… the things they wonder about and that drive their desire to learn. When we build off this natural phenomenon, we support learners along the path to knowledge and understanding without expecting a right answer. Successful learning expeditions use the curriculum as the buoy, not the boat.

“Less Us, More Them” (LUMT) doesn’t exempt teachers from the learning process, or minimize the importance of their expertise within in the learning environment. LUMT raises expectations and standards in our classrooms by granting more responsibility to the learner. In this environment, it is natural to expect kids to look up unfamiliar words, proofread, and contribute resources for class discussion without prodding from the teacher.

To start making your classroom more student-centered, demonstrate a concept and then ask students to do something. Walk around and support them. Bring the group together to celebrate an accomplishment or seize the next teachable moment. We need to operate as if students own the time in our classrooms, not us. Kids rise to the occasion if we let them. When students own the learning process, they also own the knowledge they construct. Self-reliance results when we relinquish control and power to our students.

If you wanted to become a carpenter, you would spend time with great carpenters. Teachers serve as effective mentors when their apprentices – students – observe their continuous growth and learn by example.

Piaget suggests that it is not the role of the teacher to correct a child from the outside, but to create conditions in which the student corrects himself. Whenever you are about to intervene on behalf of a teachable moment, pause and ask yourself, “Is there a way I can shift more agency to the learner?”

Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.


This article appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of The Creative Educator. Download the entire issue in PDF form here.


screen-shot-2010-03-22-at-21148-pmI’ve written another article about teaching with computers for The Creative Educator magazine. The Genius of Print may be downloaded here (pdf) or you may download the entire issue of the magazine.

You may also download, read and share the entire issue of The Creative Educator magazine here.

screen-shot-2010-03-22-at-24048-pm

You might also enjoy reading two articles I wrote for previous issues of The Creative Educator about effective project-based learning.

Download and distribute:

  1. What Makes a Good Project?
  2. Raising Our Standards – Developing Projects that Endure

click to downloadclick to download

click article to download