Thursday, July 29, 2010

Project Runway and Education: How much are you Tim vs. Heidi?

I tripped somewhat spectacularly on my way to class yesterday, resulting in a trip to the doctor for my sprained ankle, a gimpy 1.5 hours of class (rather than the scheduled 3), and an afternoon of quality time with my cats and my DVR as I RICEd.

Which brings me to the title of this post. I may have watched several consecutive episodes of Project Runway, and I'm a little bit enthralled by the interactions between the contestants, Tim Gunn, and the judges (personified for this purposes of this post as Heidi Klum, although Heidi is always accompanies by 3 other judges).

I'll start by acknowledging the overall inappropriateness of the competitive atmosphere of the show ("Remember, one of you is going home!") for a classroom. On the other hand, there's something intriguing about the way each challenge (assignment) is always interpreted by the contestants (students) in very unique, individual ways. I think any assignment in an real classroom with enough room for student interpretation to showcase real higher order thinking is likely to result in this kind of diversity of responses:

(The challenge was to make a red carpet dress for Heidi Klum -- two of these co-won, and one was a "catastrophe", can you tell which is the loser?)

There's also something intriguing in the way Tim Gunn tries to ask the students leading questions to make sure they're really on the right path without ever coming out and saying, "I think this is a mistake." On the other hand, the judges are blunt, direct, and to the point, praising skill and good taste and excoriating the disasters, but after it's too late to make any changes in course. In most classrooms these two roles are merged into a single person. The teacher has to strike a balance between warm, fuzzy Tim Gunn-like probing / leading (Socratic?) questions and cold, final Heidi Klum & Co. judging (assessment).

How much of each do you put your time into as a teacher? Does the balance vary by age or ability of the student?

(P.S. Yes, it is hilarious that I, who have the fashion sense of an armadillo, find Project Runway so fascinating. I think it's the raw creativity on display that I find so compelling.)


  1. Thanks for the pretty pictures. I don't think I have ever watched project runway but i have watched the hair stylist one (don't remember the name). There is something about the way artists are able to receive critique (assessment) as inspiration that we should seek to transfer to the classroom (like the video game discussion). I did not think of that for these shows but assessment is seen as the path to improvement for them. Hopefully we will find review of our classroom teaching like that too -- assessment for a goal.

  2. Emily, I wish that I had paid better attention when my wife and daughter were watching PR so that I had a better frame of reference. Still, I love the point you make about the diversity of responses being generated by a prompt/assignment as being a kind of test of the quality of the assignment (I suppose that I've read into your response a bit, but I think I'm close, anyway). Kristin and I have come to think of the blog assignment as feeling like a success by that measure, and I think you're really on to something here.

  3. George -- yes, Shear Genius has a similar weird fascination. And yes, there's something compelling about how the contestants on both shows struggle to both incorporate the judge's feedback and stay true to their own "point of view".

    Jeff, yes I think that if there's enough freedom for an assignment to produce really interesting responses, there's also going to be a vast diversity of responses. The diversity of high quality responses is great. The diverse response that is fairly far off the mark the teacher had in mind is more challenging... I think the interesting thing about the three dresses above is that the disaster is the one that was most reworked in response to the input the contestant got along the way. So sometimes feedback doesn't help...

  4. I am interested in the 'inappropriateness of the competitive atmosphere of the show'. I wonder what place competition has in the classroom. I think a balance should be reached. I think that if 'everyone is a winner' then the real world is not being reflected and many students (like me) would just check out. At the same time, if everything is done on a curve students may become ultra-competitive and may not even work together as is the case in some undergraduate engineering departments.

    I came across an interesting way of handing out grades in 6th grade classroom within which I was observing. The teacher would start with the top grades. The students would recieve their work with a huge smile and the whole class would clap for them. The students in the middle had mixed reactions. Some would show happyness and others indifference. The children near the bottom showed a bit of shame/embarrassment but not in what I deemed to be an unhealthy way. I thought this method brought the class together because all of the students were exposed - and knew where everyone else stood. The whole process seemed healthy to me. Any thoughts?

  5. Pete, I think the whole question of competitiveness is really interesting. Project Runway takes it to a doom-laden "one of you will be kicked off the island (Manhattan :)" extreme which is impractical for a class (unless done as a joke, maybe?)... but yes, some healthy competitiveness is fun.

    In the sixth grade class you observed, I wonder if the same kids are at the bottom of the grades every time? It seems a bit like playing games with family or friends -- as long as everyone takes turns winning and losing, it's fun, but when someone always wins or always loses, it can kind of kill the fun for the persistent losers and make them disengage. I wonder how class activities can be structured to capture the fun of competition without getting to the point where some kids give up on the game.