I remember watching Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, directed by Kenneth Branagh when I was a teenager. I thought it was brilliant at the time and it inspired me to read a number of the Gothic classics. However, on later reflection Branagh’s passion project, despite the inclusion of Robert de Niro, didn’t do justice to Mary Shelley’s original.

I was thinking about this the other day when I was looking at some past student work from previous PBL projects we had created that were not as successful as they perhaps could have been. For some of these projects, I think it was because they were Frankenstein Projects.

What I mean by this is that the students’ End Product, was not so much a homogenous piece of work, but rather a mish-mash of individually created elements, often hastily ‘stiched together’ at the end of the project to form some “monster” or “ugly wretch”, rather than an internally consistent and artfully realised whole product.

I don’t mean to say that these Frankenstein Projects don’t demonstrate quality learning. Often they demonstrate incredibly deep learning and remarkable insight on behalf of the students involved in their composition. The problem is that these projects don’t demonstrate effective teamwork, which, if we are serious about Project Based Learning, should be a priority.

We know these end products when we see them. Often some elements are completed very well, and others are done poorly. Sometimes we realise that the group members have an in-depth understanding of the content they have researched and contributed to the final product, but limited understanding of the other parts that make up the whole. As teachers, we often see a disconnect between each element presented in the End Product, suggesting to us that our students do not understand how these parts are related. Towards the end of the project, we often hear students say things like “I’ve finished my section and don’t have anything else to do”. These are all indicators of what I would call Frankenstein Projects.

Somtimes it is our fault, we ceate projects that encourage students to break the project up between group members.

We often, without thinking, build projects that encourage students to break the project down into parts, to complete their own sections and to ‘stitch’ the End Product back together into their own PBL monster. We create projects that have clearly defined parts for students to complete, encouraging them to break the project into these elements to ‘share out’ within the group and reassemble at the end.

These Frankenstein Project often reminds me of the Indian tale of the 6 blind men and the elephant. In this story, 6 blind men, or men in the dark, are asked to feel and describe an object they have never seen, an elephant. Depending on where they have touched the animal, the men make an attempt to describe the elephant. None are incorrect in their description, but none have comprehended the complete picture either.

I’ve seen this numerous times. Our End Product is an iBook… we have 5 students in each group… so we ask for 5 chapters… Our End Product is an oral presentation… we have 4 students in each group… we provide 4 talking points… What did we really think would happen?

However, It is not always our fault, sometimes our students, often lacking confidence in their group’s ability to cooperate, actively look for ways to break the project up among themselves.

This was perhaps most evident to me a number of years ago when marking an English project. We had cleared classes and had asked our students to write a fiction book in a day. Students were in groups of 5 and one particular group had taken the decision to write a five chapter book, each writing their own chapter. Needless to say, the End Product was disjointed and lacked cohesion. More to the point, one character’s name changed halfway through the story and we ended the book in a different city from where the setting was staged!

So how do we avoid Frankenstein Projects? I think the more we are mindful of the potential for a project the be broken down into elements and reassembled at the end, the more likely it is that this can be avoided. Assuming we have done this, I think that project facilitation is the real key. Opportunities to discuss a group’s approach to a project or problem allows us, as the facilitator, to discourage students from attempting to create their own monster. We can ask the challenging questions and prod our students to encourage them to build a more homogenous End Product. We can also work with our classes to improve the way our groups work together on projects, encouraging collaboration and team work.

I think it is impossible to completely avoid Frankenstein Projects. If our students really want to divide the work up amongst themselves and piece it back together again at the end, they will manage to do so. The best we can do is to support positive team work approaches, build projects that don’t encourage students to pull the End Product apart and work closely with our students as they grapple with the demands of the task.

Hopefully then our students won’t be working alone, adrift on a piece of ice, as Mary Shelley’s titular character was at the end of her novel.