Process over product: reflecting on changes to the MYP Personal Project

I’ve been re-immersed in the Personal Project for the past couple of months while Laura England and I have been updating our textbook to align with the newly released guide. The two main emphases of this newest iteration of the project are agency and process, and it is the latter that is probably going to cause the biggest frustration amongst teachers — and perhaps some students.

In both of the most recent curriculum review cycles before this one — in response to feedback from schools that students felt the outcome or product was not being taken into consideration in the assessment — the product gradually took on more importance. I recall when the first changes were introduced in 2011, a new, un-moderated objective/criterion was introduced: “Achieve the Goal”. More recently, “Taking action” (Criterion C) included explicit mention of the quality of the product. In the newest version of the project, the product is not assessed; a student’s planning towards and reflection on the quality is, but the supervisor makes no quantifiable judgement on the quality of the product itself.

In my years coordinating the Personal Project, I had my share of teachers, students and parents asking why the product didn’t “count” for more in the overall grade. I get it: students spend a lot of time working on their projects and they want to be rewarded for the quality of the finished product. To be honest, I agreed with them — because it’s much easier to assess a tangible outcome than it is to assess the thinking behind it. But shouldn’t assessments be designed so that they value students’ intellect, not reduce the amount of intellect required of teachers?

Over time, I’ve realised that that process is where we find the real evidence of higher order thinking skills, and the new assessment criteria reflects this. After all, why should a student be penalised if the product fails? And, conversely, why should a student be rewarded for a high quality product if there has been limited engagement in the process? (That may sound harsh, but don’t we all remember those classmates who managed to throw something impressive together at the last minute when we worked ages to produce something half as good; and they didn’t really challenge themselves or learn anything in the process, did they?) It’s not that the product isn’t important, but it is through the process that students develop critical and creative thinking skills — and resilience. The product is merely the end result of all of that thinking and reflection. James Dyson famously created over 5,000 prototypes of his first product; that perseverance in the face of perceived failure is probably what makes Dyson such a successful company today.

The new project is far less linear; there is no clear path from A to B. But that mirrors the thinking process. Thinking is messy. I recently stumbled across an interesting article on Edutopia, in which the author (Emily Kaplan) states that “…thoughts, like atoms, are invisible: Even in the realm of education, we most often talk about finished products—the answer, the sentence—and not the messy, iterative, highly personal processes that built them. And even when we do talk about process, we tend to do so in superficial terms: one or two steps we took, perhaps, but not everything we considered, tried, ruled out.” (Kaplan, 2021) The new project objectives embrace the messy and the criteria demands that students analyse that process, mistakes and all. I can’t think of a better preparation for “real life” than that.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: This post has gained a lot of traction, and I just want to be clear on the fact that the product is still an important part of the Personal Project process (students must create a learning goal and product); the quality or success of the product is just not directly assessed by the supervisor.

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