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Project Management for Teachers and Professors: Part 1

June 22, 2012

Project Management is What We Do

Recent interest in “geeks” in management–and in managing geeks–suggests even stronger ties between management and teaching (especially the professoriate) than professional teachers might have expected.  Many of us went into this work because we are geeks, in the sense that we like to “geek out” about or get completely, even obsessively, into our projects or interests.  It turns out that this is a characteristic quality of a lot of great managers as well.

One site promoting this idea is the British blog Geek/Manager.  Given that Meri Williams, the author of the site, not only calls herself a geek and a manager, but also claims that mentoring and coaching are important and beloved parts of her job, there’s clearly significant overlap between what project managers, geeks, and teachers do.  We all get into our subjects with passionate enthusiasm, then find ways to communicate that enthusiasm by breaking down complex ideas and broad notions into step-by-step, or procedural, approaches that others can use to manage their own work and to work together.

So if that’s the case, what does the growing field of professional project management have to offer teachers and professors?  What are project managers getting right that instructors can learn from?  There are a number of possibilities, so this will only be Part 1 in an (occasional) series, but I want to hit on a really key project management concept right away.  It’s an idea that Williams herself has written about, and in fact she a presentation available that deals, in part, with it.  The concept is scaffolding.

Now, it’s true that teachers already use the word “scaffolding” to refer to incremental support provided to students at each step, so that they can move productively from one stage of a project to another.  And it’s also true that Williams does not actually use the term itself.  What she does suggest, though–and this is what her concept of “geek” project management has to offer us–is that managers are often too involved in the execution of projects, in the ways that specific goals or projects get achieved on the individual level.  The problem, she says, is that geeks “already have [their] own ways of being productive and getting things done” and that “the real value of Project Management is in Initiating, Planning, and Closing.”

This, of course, depends to some extent on the expertise level of your people, whether they are employees or students.  College freshmen need more support in their actual processes than older undergraduates because they may not yet have their own “ways of being productive.”  Yet it is important to remember that even for younger students, offering support in initiating and planning a project, then allowing them to work out their own ways of getting the project done, then providing effective feedback on that process (“closing”) can be much more effective than attempting to manage and control every stage of productivity.

Plus, of course, there’s the fact that all teachers–maybe even more so than managers–have to come to terms with: the students go home to do their homework, and we have to let them do it on their own.  We can’t be there, hovering over their work, making sure they are going about it as we would like.  Just like employees, they will resent such intrusion, and they will learn less, or learn to let you do it for them.

Teaching Takeaway

The key to remember here, for teachers and professors, is not necessarily that we can’t or shouldn’t provide support during the “doing” phase of a project.  Students, by definition, need more support throughout the project than experts or employees do.  Rather, what we should take away from this is a commitment to even more complete, more careful attention to initiating, planning, and closing projects.

In other words:

(A) The more work we put into really clearly and effectively planning a project before our students are ever introduced to it–the more we hash out our goals for the project, the methods we’re going to use to achieve them, how we’re going to evaluate its effectiveness, and so on–the less hand-holding they will need during the production phase, and the more we can leave them to explore “how to get things done” in their own ways.

(B) The same is true of the “initiation” phase, which for teachers may actually come after the planning.  This is when we introduce our students to the project, “sell” it to them, get their excitement up.  And I think this is an area where a lot of teachers don’t do enough work.  The more carefully we have planned, the better able we’ll be to encapsulate the value, process, and outcomes of the project and how the students will benefit.  Then we need to take the time to tell them all of this.

(C) Finally, the “closing” phase simply can’t be overemphasized.  Providing timely and complete feedback is the centerpiece, and we need to provide feedback not only on the finished product but on the process itself (how well we, as a class, have achieved the goals of the project, as well as how the individual student has managed the “getting the project done” phase).  Moreover, talking to students about how to use our feedback to inform their later processes–and suggesting how the skills they learned from this project will prepare them for and support the next one–provides the kind of closure on a project that makes it seem worthwhile.

Teachers are project managers by definition; a few key lessons from professional project managers, including the injunction to focus on initiation, planning, and closure, can tweak our delivery of projects to increase student investment and ensure real goals are met.

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