‘What is it your students really do well?’ What “The Three Amigos” can teach us about Project Based Learning

What is it your students really do well?

For those that aren’t intimately familiar with the classic ¡The Three Amigos!, as I am, this scene takes place as the villainous (and infamous) El Guapo and his henchmen are riding horseback to destroy the village of Santa Poco. Outmanned and outgunned, the people of Santa Poco are presumably defenseless against El Guapo’s legion. Lucky Day (played by Steve Martin) and the other two amigos arrive at the village to warn them.

What a great model of Project Based Learning (PBL). Join me as we glean a plethora of PBL truths from ¡The Three Amigos!.

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Lucky Day: El Guapo is on his way.

Create an Exciting Entry Event.

A typical terrible Entry Document from one of my classes.

In this case, the entry document is a simple statement of fact: El Guapo is on his way. That’s all it took to develop a motivation in the people of Santa Poco. More than that: it creates an impending deadline of action. Recently, Julia gave a great webinar on creating an exciting entry event. What could be more exciting than the impending destruction of your town? Personally, too often my entry events were form letters from fake corporations which outlined exactly what the students would be doing and exactly what the students would be learning. In fact, I just ended up calling them “Entry Documents” because that’s all they were: documents that I typed up. Is it fair to ask students to develop interesting, dynamic projects when I won’t develop an interesting, dynamic Entry Event?

Looking back, they often weren’t particularly motivating and were much to constraining. A good Entry Event sets up the scenario, promotes student questioning, and, above all, motivates.

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Carmen: Someday the people of this village will have to face El Guapo. We might as well do it now!

Lucky Day: In a way, all of us have an El Guapo to face someday. For some, shyness might be their El Guapo. For others, a lack of education might be their El Guapo. For us, El Guapo is a big dangerous guy who wants to kill us. But as sure as my name is Lucky Day, the people Santa Poco can conquer their own personal El Guapo who also happens to be the actual El Guapo.

Externalize the enemy.

In a traditional classroom, this is often done exclusively in the form of a summative assessment, such as a test, at the end of a unit. Even if you’re able to get away from a solely test-based-assessment, is the primary motivation of students’ in your class a good grade? The rubric? In a Project Based Learning unit, students are expected to overcome an obstacle en route to learning core content knowledge.

One arrow in the quiver of PBL is to “externalize the enemy.” Athletic coaches do a great job of this: it’s in their job description. The “enemy” is the other team. In one week, this enemy is going to come to the field of play and we must develop a strategy to compete. In Three Amigos it’s El Guapo. Even better, Lucky Day (played by Steve Martin) goes on to list several potential El Guapos.

Have you created an El Guapo in your class? Who or what is the externalized enemy? Is it a panel of experts? Or a fellow teacher? Or yourself? While it doesn’t have to be an entirely adversarial creation, an external enemy can motivate students to triumph over a foe.

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Man: We want to defend ourselves, but how?

Ned Nederlender: By using the skills and talents of the people of Santa Poco.

…This is not a town of weaklings! You can turn your skills against El Guapo!

…Now, what is it that this town really does well?

[Long pause. Lots of “Hmmmm”s.]

Mama Sanchez: We can sew!

Students develop a strategy problem-solve the Entry Event.

The Three Amigos did not prescribe the methodology of the people of Santa Poco to overcome El Guapo. Rather, they asked the people themselves what they were good at. And even though you would attribute an ability to sew with defeating a squadron of vicious banditos, the Three Amigos helped facilitate the people’s talents to win the day (sorry: spoiler alert!).

It is up to the teacher/facilitator to get students to use their talents, passions, and expertise to overcome the problem put forth in the Entry Event. When’s the last time you asked your students “what is it that this class really does well? Too often, I would prescribe the final product of a project, hemming my students in to the limitation of my own creativity: You must write an article that describes…, you must give a presentation that demonstrates…, etc.

Instead, I should have asked students to develop their own methods and products to solve the Entry Event I gave them. This certainly would have required loosening the reigns a bit – a prerequisite for any PBL facilitator – and I may not have initially gotten the products I was envisioning, but I’m willing to bet the products I did get would be of better quality and more meaningful to my students. I’m sure initially, the Three Amigos would have preferred the townspeople all be skilled marksmen with a cache of invasion-repelling weaponry, but in the end, they utilized their skills – and developed some new ones – en route to success.

Using some of the key tenants of Project Based Learning, the people of Santa Poco, with their unique skills and abilities, were able to problem-solve their way through their exciting Entry Event. Why not let your students do the same?

This entry was posted in commentary, sew like the wind. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to ‘What is it your students really do well?’ What “The Three Amigos” can teach us about Project Based Learning

  1. Rob King says:

    I love this! It has student self-direction, collaboration, and a real-world result. It’s authentic and fun and, frankly, the way that adults in the workplace have to problem-solve all the time.

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