For the longest time, I was the project manager for 30 different projects. I would chart their progress and nag them about getting tasks done. Or I would set specific deadlines for the entire class. Over time, though, I realized that my students could learn how to manage their projects on their own.
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The Need for Project Management
Chances are you’ve seen this scenario before. You give your students three weeks to work on a collaborative project. You start out with total buy-in. They’re excited about what they will create. But a week later, you run into issues. Students aren’t making any progress. One group has barely even started. Another has had fifteen false starts and they keep changing what they are making.
You think about extending the time for this unit but there’s no more time in the curriculum map. For all the talk of letting kids work at their own pace, you’re not finding this to be true. Half the groups are way behind and you’re wondering if you need to set rigid deadlines.
I lived this scenario for years. And here’s the bad news: sometimes you need deadlines. When groups are fizzling out, you need to have a difficult conversation about meeting deadlines. I spent years running a project-based, design-oriented classroom. However, my students were still middle schoolers and sometimes it was hard, even in the midst of a great project, for them to persevere. Eventually, I realized that if we break projects up into manageable phases using design thinking, students can see clear phases and benchmarks. This then reduces cognitive load.
Initially, I viewed this as being less authentic. Projects are meant to be messy, right? But actually, structures, phases, deadlines, and to do lists are all aspects of real projects that people do outside of school. Whether it’s a personal project or a collaborative project in nearly any industry, deadlines are a significant part of the process. This is why we need project management.
Students Should Own the Project Management Process
When I first started implementing PBL with my students, I grew overwhelmed by the process. I was constantly reminding groups to get on task and work harder. Without realizing it, I had become a nag. Meanwhile, I struggled with how to keep track of every single group. I had a bunch of spreadsheets with various group members and their assigned tasks but I couldn’t adequately keep track of each person’s progress. I was burning out from being the project manager to thirty-five different groups.
Then one day, I decided to try an experiment. What if I empowered my students to own the project management process? I started with one single process (using a Scrum Board) and I trained every group’s project manager. I then shifted to a supervisor who would meet with the project management. Instead of nagging them with, “Why are you behind?” I could start with, “Where are you in your project progress?” and follow up with, “What are you planning to do to catch up?”
Things changed. It was slow at first. I made a lot of mistakes along the way. But if we want to empower our students for an uncertain future where they will engage in creative work, we need to teach them project management.
It’s never perfect. Some students will struggle to meet deadlines. Procrastination will still occur. But project management is a skill that improves over time. As students learn how to break apart tasks and chart their progress, they begin to think differently about their work. In the end, project management becomes one of those life-long, transferable skills.
A quick caveat: students who struggle with executive function might need additional reminders and support through the process. However, I was talking to a special education teacher recently who shared how project management actually helped her students improve in executive function skills, because of the visualization, anticipation, and task analysis they were practicing.
Project management is about more than just setting a schedule. It’s the idea of following through on your plans and continuing with tasks even when nobody is looking over your shoulder. This is the part that’s often described as a “grind” by entrepreneurs. However, it’s also where we get the chance to see our results and meet our goals. It’s where the real work is found in creative collaboration.
If you’d like to check out the project management process for students, please fill out the form below and I’ll email it to you.
Using AI as a Project Management Tool
If you do a quick search online, you’ll see tons of different project management models, apps, and programs. I’ve seen people who swear by one particular approach. However, it’s more of a personal preference.
First Component: Set Goals and Chart Progress
Project management begins with goal setting. Students need to have a clear sense of where they are going and what it will look like when they are finished. Here’s where AI can be helpful. Students might take the project instructions or the project rubric and create their own goals. They can then use a chatbot to generate a set of project goals and see if they want to add some of the goals that the chatbot creates as well. These goals will drive the next component of breaking down the tasks.
Second Component: Break Down Tasks and Set Deadlines
After students create goals, they can then break the project down into tasks and subtasks with clear setting deadlines. When students are able to break tasks down and set realistic deadlines, they are able to turn a project from an idea into a reality. In this phase, students need to think realistically about what is needed in terms of time, resources, and concrete actions. Students will develop a plan of action and select their tools and materials. If it’s a collaborative project, students often divide up roles and responsibilities.
Chatbots can help students refine their project ideas by providing guidance on narrowing down the scope, identifying specific objectives, and setting achievable milestones. Students might ask the chatbot to provide a project plan by dividing the project into smaller tasks, assigning responsibilities to team members, and establishing a timeline for completion. Students can then modify the initial plan (tasks, subtasks, and deadlines) to fit their own context.
Other times, students might use a chatbot to provide feedback on their the plan they’ve created. Chatbots can help students identify potential challenges and risks associated with their project goals and suggest strategies to mitigate them. Students might ask a question like, “Is this a realistic timeline? What might we need to adjust?” Throughout the project, students can seek feedback from the chatbot to ensure they are on track to meet their goals or make any necessary adjustments.
Third Component: Choose and Implement Strategies
Once they have a clear plan, students begin to choose and implement their specific strategies. They can select the resources and materials while also deciding on the processes that will work best for them. So, when doing research, they might use notecards or a spreadsheet. When managing their project, they might keep their tasks on a shared document or on a shared calendar.
Here’s where a chatbot can become a game-changer with students who need a checklist to improve their focus. Students can take their assign tasks and ask for a detailed checklist with time deadlines based on the class period. They can then copy and paste the checklist into a document where they highlight each task as they finish it. You might have the group’s project manager create this checklist or you, as a teacher, might use the chatbot to design the checklist. But the big idea is that it makes differentiation easier than ever.
Fourth Component: Monitor, Adjust, and Problem-Solve
While tasks and deadlines are vital to project management, things will not always work according to plan. Students can have the best-developed plans in the world, but life will happen. The internet goes down for a day. A group member gets sick for two days. You have a fire drill and then an unplanned assembly. A few students hit a creative block and suddenly feel stuck.
In these moments, students will need to solve problems and deal with issues as they arise. Things will break. Plans will change. This is the frustrating side of student-centered learning. It’s messier than a tidy worksheet. And yet, when students are able to tackle these challenges, they grow into problem-solvers and critical thinkers. They can monitor their progress and adjust their approach as they go.
In this phase, students will also monitor and perhaps even re-examine their original goals. Students can use a chatbot to reflect on their performance, assess the achievement of their goals, and identify areas for improvement or further exploration. So, they might put in a prompt asking for a revised set of goals. They might ask the chatbot to change their timeline or offer suggestions of how to speed things up.
Students might use a chatbot as a guide to help generate solutions. When problems arise, students might seek out potential solutions from the generative AI. Chatbots are really fast with pattern recognition and that can help with these types of logistical issues that students will run into during PBL.
You can think of a chatbot as a facilitator in group discussions, helping students collaborate, exchange ideas, and reach a consensus on project goals. Here, it functions almost like a team member. Or you can treat it more like a tool that students maneuver. Students can also use a chatbot to reflect on their performance, assess the achievement of their goals, and identify areas for improvement or further exploration.
Check the Policies
A quick caveat here. You need to check the policies before using these tools. Many AI tools are unavailable because they violate COPPA, CIPA, FERPA, or IDEA. Many contain Terms of Service that limit the age range and require additional parental permission. I’m sharing this now because we will likely see a proliferation of AI chatbots that do comply to these policies in the upcoming years.
It’s also key to remember that while chatbots (like ChatGPT) can provide valuable support, it’s essential for students to engage in critical thinking, collaborate with their peers, and consult with their teachers to ensure the success of their PBL experience. We don’t want to turn the project management process over to an AI entirely. Instead, we should integrate chatbots into the project management process in a way that is human-driven. That’s why it’s critical that we teach students how to use structures for project management.
Structures for Teaching Project Management
The following are a few structures either I have used or I have seen other teachers use with students engaging in project management.
#1: Find the PARTS
A.J. Juliani and I developed this as we created the LAUNCH Cycle. Here, we asked students to engage in project management during the phases where they navigate ideas, prototype, and revise. We use the acronym PARTS:
Product Idea: Often this is an annotated sketch or even a project plan.
Audience: Here, they have a clarification of who their audience is. In some cases, they might do an empathy exercise (like a Day in the Life, an interview, or a Needs/Wants activity) to get a better sense of who their audience is and what they need.
Role: In this part, they clarify their roles.
Tasks: They break down the larger product idea into tasks with specific deadlines.
Solution: Here, they clarify their solutions.
#2: Visualize the Project
This is a structure I saw with a special education teacher who worked with students on visualizing their project tasks in order to build up task analysis skills and improve executive function skills. She began by giving each student butcher paper and having them create a large calendar. Then, using sticky notes, they practiced visualizing each sub-task for the project and sketching it out on the sticky notes. They then had to predict how long each sub-task would take. As they negotiated these timeframes, she walked around the class saying things like, “maybe we need to give this a little more time” or “actually, you should be able to get this done a little faster.” Then, each day, students would unroll their butcher paper and check their progress.
Another variation of this might be to do a Scrum Board. Here, students keep a board with three columns: not started, in progress, finished. Students write all of the tasks on sticky notes. As they move through the project, they place the sticky notes in each category. Whenever a student finishes a task, the whole team cheers as they place the sticky note in the “finished” category. This creates a ritual that helps improve group cohesion.
Trello works well for older students, because of issues around CIPA and COPPA compliance. With Trello, students can share a project management board and then move tasks from one location to a new location (such as to-do, doing, finished). They make it easy to archive lists and add resources and links to things like Google Docs. Often, students will break down their projects into a set of task cards with the sub-tasks on a to-do list. Here, they can check to see how close they are to completing the task by checking the progress bar.
If you are working with younger students, you might use this same strategy with notecards. They can then move the task cards from location to location as they work toward finishing their project.
#4: Check-In Forms
With check-in forms, students use surveys to help monitor their daily or weekly progress on a project. Students might create an area for goals or for tasks and then use the checkmark option to monitor their progress and see trends. However, they can also use this structure to self-reflect and keep themselves accountable.
This requires students to set goals, break down tasks, and set deadlines. They can then use a spreadsheet to categorize the larger task, sub-task, materials, and people responsible. When using a spreadsheet, they can easily sort their tasks by date, people responsible, materials, etc. This option is less visual than other options. However, it allows for deeper analysis.
If you look at this spreadsheet, you can see that students have to negotiate roles, clarify tasks, and actively monitor and adjust their progress for a documentary project (note that this is a fictionalized version of the type we used when I taught eighth grade).
Managing the Project Managers
I want to walk you through what this actually looks like on a daily basis during a PBL. In our first project-based learning unit, I might limit the project management process to one of the five previously mentioned processes. We might do a Scrum board. From there, I train each group’s project manager. I usually pick a project manager with stronger executive function skills who will also be dependable.
At the start of each day, each student shares their key task for the day using the sentence frame “Today I will ________. What it will look like when I’m finished is ________.” The focus is on visualizing the tasks ahead of time. Each group member shares in a round robin style.
As they start working, I pull every project manager for a quick huddle. This time, the project managers will explain where they are in the project. No explanations. No questions. Just a super fast update. The project manager then manages their group’s project while also working on it themselves.
This process allows me to shift from being the project manager on every team’s project to being more of a supervisor. If I see a group falling behind, we can do a quick conference. I end up feeling like less of a nag and more of a mentor.
In the second week, the project manager trains each group member to be the project manager. So, for each day of the week, the group has a new manager. In the third week of the project, most teams are able to have a rotating manager with each day of the week. This helps create ownership among each member of the team. There’s more of an urgency to getting tasks done when you are also a project manager.
In our second project, I can usually shift entirely to the rotating project manager role. I’m also able to introduce the five different project management models and teams can choose which one they want to use. It’s a little messy and chaotic but I’ve found that it works well.
This Requires Real Projects
You can’t learn this type of project management with packets of worksheets. If we want students to develop project management skills, they need authentic projects. The kind of projects that matter to them. The kind where they are in the driver’s seat. And that’s why students need to own the creative process and embrace creative collaboration.
If you’re interested in getting started with project-based learning, check out my Getting Started with PBL page, complete with articles, videos, and resources. You might also want to check out my PBL toolkit, which includes a set of projects and mini-projects, along with a Getting Started with PBL guide and a set of assessment resources you can use within the project-based learning framework. I will also send you a weekly email with free, members-only access to my latest blog posts, videos, podcasts and resources to help you boost creativity and spark innovation in your classroom. Just sign up below!
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“Using transferable skills for a lifetime.” Love this and so many key takeaways. Thank you John! I appreciate how you clearly are willing to explore how we might begin to utilize AI and chatbots. I’m not sure I entirely agree when you shared, “use chatbots in a diagnostic problem solving way.” However, you seem to later qualify this with saying how we shouldn’t turn AI into project management but to “integrate the chatbots so projects are human driven but AI informed.” Well said.
Question: for students in their later years of high school (or possibly on into university) that have not had the opportunity to experience ever managing a sizable project (ie. Senior capstone or thesis), what suggestions might you have? Thanks for all you do John!