I want to make something clear before we dive into this topic. I made huge mistakes in classroom management as a teacher. I let certain disruptive behaviors go unchecked because I was tired and I didn’t want to put out another fire. I had moments when I shamed a student or yelled at a class. Each time, I apologized and continued to grow. But the reality remains: I had tons of moments when I failed in this area. So, I feel a certain reticence when tackling the question, “How do I handle classroom management in a PBL unit?”
And yet, I also realize that my mistakes, as cringe-worthy as they may be, were also learning experiences. Teaching is an iterative process filled with experiments. I believe we can learn as much from the failures and mistakes as we can from the successes. So, with that in mind, I’d like to share what I learned about PBL and classroom management from my twelve years teaching middle school and my last three years working with new teachers who want to try out PBL but are nervous about the classroom management implications.
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What does classroom management look like in a PBL Classroom?
When I first began my PBL journey, I assumed that authentic PBL had to include “controlled chaos.” So, I loosened up my expectations. No more rules about noise. Learning could be loud. Scrap any restrictions on movement. Students would need the freedom to get supplies and materials throughout the class period.
I didn’t announce these changes. I just subtly adjusted my expectations and assumed things would go smoothly. On the first day, certain students began wandering away from their groups. Smaller social circles gathered and talked about their favorite shows or music or video games. The noise volume crept from fairly quiet to loud to ear-splitting.
I felt anxious. I’ve never thrived in loud or chaotic environments. I find it hard to focus with too much distraction. I can do concerts or sporting events where I have an assigned seat but I can’t do Black Friday shopping because of the sheer chaos and commotion.
Still, I pressed on. I wanted my class to engage in authentic PBL and I felt like I would be making it too school-ish if I put a stop to the noise or the movement.
At one point, a teacher walked into my classroom and said, “Why did you kick Alejandro out of class? He’s normally so quiet.” But the thing is, I hadn’t kicked Alejandro out. He had walked away from the noise and the chaos and he was reading a book.
When I walked outside, he said, “I’ll still get my work done but I decided to put myself in timeout. My group is okay with it, I swear.”
“That’s fine. If you need a breather, take a time out. Just let me know ahead of time.”
When I stepped back in the classroom, a different student came up to me and asked if he could also go outside and work away from his group.
“Won’t they miss you?” I asked.
“I don’t think they really notice me. They’re all talking over each other and I can’t . . . I can’t really hear them.”
“Go ahead and go to the hall,” I answered.
Another student asked to go to the hallway. Then another. Suddenly I had ten students sitting quietly outside, separated out. To my surprise, they were dialed in to their group projects. Even Alejandro, the student who felt invisible, was suddenly a participating member again. But he was communicating via the chat function in Gmail. He had figured out his own approach.
I had always assumed that there was something wrong with me in my preference for quiet. But as I stood outside in the hallway, I saw myself in so many of those students. In many cases, they were the fellow introverts who needed time alone to work on their projects. They weren’t opposed to collaboration but they needed to do so in a way that honored their identity. Other students with social anxiety or sensory issues felt overwhelmed by the over-stimulation and noise of the chaotic classroom.
It was in this moment that I decided to ask for student feedback. I printed up a quick survey (these were the pre- Google Forms days) to see how students felt about the classroom environment. Two-thirds described having a hard time concentrating on their work. Some students loved the chaos but many of them hated it.
Authentic PBL Doesn’t Have to Equal Chaos
The next morning, I had coffee with my mentor and lamented, “I thought the project was authentic. I thought I could create a student-centered environment. I thought they would just know how to behave during a project like this. But, I don’t know, maybe I’m not able to create that kind of environment.”
He furrowed his eyebrows and said, “You ever work on a project when you’re at Starbucks?”
“Okay, watch the people in Starbucks. What trends do you see?”
I described people sitting at the tables and occasionally standing at a tall table. They moved to get coffee, to use the restroom, and to order items. However, they weren’t running around. They weren’t throwing things or standing on chairs. Instead, it was relaxed.
Although the environment was noisy, it was mostly due to the work of grinding coffee and blending beverages. Most people were talking at a reasonable volume. They followed unspoken norms that allowed for communication and work.
He then challenged me to think of all the spaces where I had done my best individual and collaborative projects. These were spaces designed for communication, deep thinking, and deep work. Some of these spaces were silent and others were loud. However, they were all spaces where I could focus.
I realized something critical at that moment. If we want students to engage in authentic projects, we need to design systems and structures that facilitate collaboration and creativity. For all the talk of “embracing chaos,” it turns out classroom management is a vital part of authentic PBL.
As I drove home, I realized that I had bought into some significant myths about PBL and classroom management. If you’re interested, I explore this myths in-depth in an article about the myths of classroom management and PBL. I had seen structure as the enemy of authenticity but then I realized that structure was vital for creative work. I had believed that an engaging project would mean I never had to think about classroom management but I soon learned that authentic projects often led to a different set of classroom management challenges.
Developing a Classroom Management Plan for PBL
When I first began thinking strategically about classroom management in project-based learning, I implemented a few significant changes. I have included these elements in the free resource at the bottom of this page. It’s a template where I use guiding questions to walk you, step-by-step through how to design a classroom management plan for your project-based learning unit. The following are some of the changes I implemented when I first started thinking proactively about classroom management in PBL:
1. I changed my lesson design.
My approach to PBL involved nonstop group work without any individual time for processing. This felt overwhelming for introverts but also became challenging for my ELL students who sometimes needed additional time to process the language and for my exceptional learners who needed additional retrieval practice. So I started to add structures that would build interdependence into collaboration. So, when students engaged in brainstorming, they would brainstorm alone first and then move to a structured brainstorm as a group. I also created moments of silence followed by louder moments (quieter during research and louder during prototyping). This had the added benefit of increasing student engagement and participation.
I also set up supports for ELL students and exceptional learners. Some of my students were off task because I had not set up the necessary scaffolds and accommodations for them. So, I started adding tutorials and anchor charts and running small group workshops that any student could attend. I incorporated sentence frames, visuals, and deliberate vocabulary practice. I used a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach, meaning these scaffolds were available to for students.
By taking a UDL approach, students avoided the stigma attached to their special education and every student learned how to advocate for themselves and find the scaffolds they needed. It was a significant step toward making PBL more accessible to all students.
2. I differentiated my classroom space.
Outside of school, some people work on projects in quiet spaces, free from distraction (a private studio, for example). Others work in noisy spaces filled with movement (planning ideas in a loud coffee shop). Individual preferences vary as well. Some people feel trapped in a cubicle but others brace against the open office concept. It was here that I decided to differentiate my space. I changed the layout of my classroom to have standing centers for students who needed more movement while also creating spaces of quiet for students who needed a refuge from the noise. I got more creative with how to store supplies. Eventually, I redesigned my entire classroom into a makerspace with even more differentiation.
Here’s where UX Design can really come in handy. UX Design is an empathy-driven process where you design intuitive systems that promote autonomy and choice. The following video explores what this looks like in the classroom:
I also differentiated for sound. I allowed students to use head phones during the individual portions of collaborative projects. Some students wanted music so they could focus. Others used noise cancellation headphones.
3. I created a set of norms and procedures.
I formed a student leadership team who met up at lunchtime and helped negotiate a set of classroom norms specific to project-based learning. We then brought these norms to the whole class and modified them together as a group. This process allowed for more student ownership in our class rules. Eventually, I had small groups create their own norms that they called group commitments. I’ll be sharing these ideas next week when we get into the topic of collaboration.
I also designed new procedures. Because PBL is so different, I needed to think differently about our classroom procedures. This included everything from how we would distribute supplies to how I would get students’ attention to what the noise level would be. We then practiced these procedures together as a class and I asked for student feedback periodically on our procedures.
4. I focused on the small group element of classroom management.
I started to think strategically about how to add interdependent structures in collaboration (mentioned earlier). But I also had groups generate their own team norms and expectations and I set up a conflict resolution process for small groups who experienced conflict. I taught small groups how to own the project management process. I also began to reflect on the changes in student and teacher roles by asking questions like, “What types of group roles will I have? How can students help plan the roles? How does my role change as a teacher and how can I make the most of it?”
If you’re interested in downloading the conflict resolution protocol, please submit your email address and I’ll email it to you. You’ll also be enrolled in the PBL for All series, where I send a weekly email with a free PBL resource each week.
In certain ways, classroom management can actually be easier in a PBL classroom. With increased engagement and clear expectations, you often find yourself doing student-teacher conferences rather than redirecting behaviors. When this happens, all students are able to work collaboratively and creatively on the epic projects you have designed for them. But even so, you will run into some significant challenges. Humans are messy and when we work collaboratively, we often experience more conflict. Moreover, the increased freedom in a PBL classroom means students might have a learning curve in how to self-regulate with more autonomy.
This is why I designed the PBL Classroom Management Planning document. I walk you step-by-step with guiding questions as you design your plan so that you can be proactive and intentional about the process. You can download the classroom management plan by filling out the form below. You’ll also be signed up to receive a new email each week with a free PBL resource and some practical ideas for designing your PBL units. If you want more support, I include an entire module on classroom management in my self-paced Project-Based Learning Master Course, which you can find here.