For some number of years, I have assessed my students' understanding of the Enlightenment by having them write an essay on the question, "Are we Enlightened yet?" After reading several hundred versions of "no," and reading several hundred papers that followed very similar formats, I got bored.
This year, I asked students to analyze the relevance of the Enlightenment, and opened the doors to them to figure out how best to present that analysis. Two students wrote papers and some did oral presentations using both PowerPoint and Prezi. These were predictable responses. I also got a news/interview show, complete with outtakes; two Tumblrs (here's one of them); an analysis of articles from the front pages of major news websites; a rap(!); and, my favorite, a sock-puppet conversation between Rousseau and Hobbes. We sat on the floor to watch it while they performed behind a big piece of cardboard.
While a few of my students worried more about their project than gaining understanding of the Enlightenment, most of them got a great deal more out of this year's assessment than other students have gotten in the past. They were able to talk about the major thinkers by name, quote them, and then relate those old ideas to what is happening in the world around them. And they did all that in ways that kept their creativity flowing, that challenged them appropriately, and that amused and educated their classmates. This was not a great example of true Project-Based Learning, but it was a step in the right direction, and I will have more assignments like this in the future.
So what has prevented me from doing an assignment in this way in the past? Fear? Laziness? The need to have them write more five-paragraph essays? The desire to grade those essays?
None of those is a worthwhile reason to keep going with the status quo.
Because this all started with the Enlightenment, I'll end with a quote from Kant's excellent summary of the movement. "Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this immaturity when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another."(Kant, "What Is Enlightenment?")
Have resolution and courage to try something different! Give your students the reins and go along for the ride--they can bring you to some pretty great places.