How Much MacGuffin is Enough MacGuffin?

Last week, when I was at the Lucas Fall Research Colloquium, I fell into wondering, as I often do, about just what it is that matters the most when creating good learning environments.

When I first read about the minimum viable product, as outlined in the Lean Startup (and some other places) a few years ago, I realized that this was a useful way of thinking about lessons and curriculum and learning design, in some significant ways.  What do I need to have on hand and in place to make the thing I want/need/want others to experience?  What’s the bare minimum I need in the classroom or learning situation for the learning I want to happen to, well, happen?

And when I listened to several of the Lucas-funded teams talking about the PBL experiences they’re building for students, I wondered what was common across them. What was, is and should be the bare minimum that a good project-based experience needs to be successful?

The group, of course, attempted to answer that question in our work and conversations1 , and we had rich and productive conversations about both the connective tissue across projects and the interesting divergences across them, too.

And it was then I was reminded that any good project is, at least a little bit, nothing more than MacGuffin.

A MacGuffin is the thing that a hero chases after to give her something to fight for/about/over.  It’s the object that the story is a little bit about, even though it seems like it’s all about it.2

Smart people argue about how much story readers/viewers are supposed to care about the thing. And maybe the thing matters very much. But Indiana Jones abandoned the Grail to save his father. Sam Spade forgets about the Maltese Falcon. The Death Star gets destroyed. And then rebuilt. And then destroyed again. Is that what Star Wars was about?

The real story, however, is not about the thing the hero’s chasing, it’s the chase itself.

And that makes me think about the projects we’re designing together, and another piece of how slippery language can be. Is the project, we wondered at the Colloquium, the thing that gets made or is the process or set of experiences that result in the making of the thing?

Either way you decide – and there’s plenty of room for healthy discussion here – I think I come down on the fact that the thing that gets made is less valuable than the series of experiences that result in the making of something powerful. There are probably wicked valuable learning experiences that won’t result in a tangible product at the end of them.

I’m cool with that.

But I wonder tonight about the role of the MacGuffin in a good project as serving to hook the students, and probably the teacher, too, around a narrative or two that will drive the experiences that are to come, and how we can build powerful things that will get the project ball rolling.

And just how much of that do we need in our projects and experiences?  What’s the minimum viable MacGuffin in a good PBL experience?

  1. Karla describes one of our team’s attempts in a previous post. []
  2. I’m grateful to Audrey Watters for reminding me that much of my career has been about uncovering the essential, and not so essential, components of useful MacGuffins. []


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