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This would be the year. I would be a fully project-based social studies teacher. After reading every PBL book I could read and attending PBL sessions at a few summer conferences, I had a vision for a new way of teaching my subject. My third year of teaching would be the first year of an entirely project-based curriculum. I had seen positive results in the previous year after doing a PBL unit each semester and now I would build on that momentum with a new group of students.

I began with our district curriculum map and set up a five-week and a four-week project for each semester (two projects per quarter). As a social studies teacher, this felt pretty easy. I could chunk the standards by theme and time period and then center the entire project around those standards. I started with larger driving standards and then added layers of connecting concept standards and then embedding skill-based standards. I even added a column in my planning document for ELA standards my students would be using in their language arts class.

I had things figured out.

But then halfway through our first project, I noticed my students seemed confused. They struggled to make the connection between a particular skill they were using (reading maps) and their current project. A few of them needed some additional time for practice. Some of them had significant misconceptions and I rushed to clarify things but ended up failing to provide adequate feedback. The project continued and students forgot about the map reading. We didn’t spiral back to any former skills. As the project progressed, students seemed bored and restless. One student asked if we could take a day off from the project and have a lecture or a class discussion. Overall, though, the project seem to work.

As we moved into our second PBL, students seemed to lack the excitement of the previous year. This particular project seemed authentic and student-centered. It was challenging but I had built in key supports and scaffolds. But a week into the project and students seemed . . . well . . . tired. They had hit a place of project fatigue. Meanwhile, I noticed that students had a shallow understanding of the concepts and they continued to struggle with some basic skills (this time analyzing primary and secondary sources). The final products were awesome and student engagement actually skyrocketed. Still, my students kept feeling irritated by small tasks that seemed unrelated to the goals of the project.

At the close of the quarter, as I went into fall break, I second-guessed my decision to go fully project-based in my teaching. I realized that certain standards didn’t fit well in projects and instead would work better with direct instruction and repetition. I re-examined the standards and realized that the larger units didn’t fit into two themes or time periods but closer to three or four. I had started with the model (PBL) and tried to fit the standards into that model instead of starting with the standards and asking, “What model works best for these standards?” In my goal to create an authentic PBL experience, I created something artificial. I had rejected things like repetition and skill practice as “artificial” but failed to realize that authenticity is all about connecting the learning to a relevant task.

In the next quarter, I redesigned the unit plans to have two mini-projects, one larger PBL project, and a more traditional unit with some smaller design sprints integrated within it.

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When Do We Want to Avoid Projects?

Looking back on that full-scale PBL approach, I realize that I failed to incorporate meaningful self-assessment and peer assessment. I didn’t integrated direct instruction, either. But I also failed to recognize that some standards simply don’t fit well within a PBL framework. It’s not that these standards are less authentic or real-world. It’s just that they lend themselves better to other frameworks. In general, these are the standards that:

  • improve with repetition and daily practice
  • focus on discreet, measurable skills
  • require significant direct instruction and guided practice
  • tend to be individual endeavors

In language arts, these standards might include reading fluency, blending, and phonics work. In math, this might involve math facts and basic computational understanding. In social studies, this could involve discreet skills in studying maps. In art, PE, and music, these are often skill-based performance standards that simply require daily practice. In these moments, a more traditional approach might work best. It might not seem as authentic but it actually is. In the real world, we all engage in repetition and practice.

Still, most standards align well with creative projects. Every subject has elements of iterative thinking, divergent thinking, problem-solving, ideation, imagination, and hands-on prototyping. But even then, sometimes the answer isn’t a full-scale PBL project. Sometimes the answer is something shorter and more abbreviated.

The Key Mistakes I Made in Going Fully Project-Based

Looking back on my epic fail with full-blown PBL, I realize that I tried to fit the content into longer 3-5 week PBL projects. The problem is I had a massive curriculum map and so I started adding unrelated standards into my projects just to make it fit. It was a curricular version of “feature creep,” where I kept adding elements to make sure that my projects covered every standard. Looking back on it, I realize I made the following mistakes:

  1. I failed to understand that some standards don’t work well with PBL. Certain standards work better with recall and practice. If students are learning math facts, a series of mental math activities or math games might work better. If students are learning phonics and blending, we might want to go with a more traditional direct instruction leading to guided practice leading to independent practice.
  2. I focused too much on projects and didn’t see the role of performance. In other words, if we want students to learn how to play a game or engage in personal fitness, we might want to use performance tasks like games or fitness exercises rather than projects in certain parts of PE. If we want students to learn a foreign language, we might do a project but we’ll also need practice (see above) and performance. In language arts, sometimes the best way to build reading fluency is to read more for an extended period of time. It’s the notion of working less but reading more.
  3. I underestimated the role of project fatigue. Students get tired of doing projects. If there are too many projects or they’re drawn out for too long, they experience boredom and restlessness. My students needed to experience a break from PBL.
  4. I simply ran out of time. The curriculum map was massive and certain standards seemed almost random compared to others. I couldn’t teach everything at a deeper, PBL, level the entire time.
  5. I focused so much on PBL that I didn’t consider other models for creative projects. Sometimes shorter bursts of creativity can yield the same deeper learning results in a shorter block of time. I started to think about my own process as a writer. Sometimes I work on a larger project like a book but often I spend a few hours writing a single blog post. When I talk to experts in all kinds of creative professions, they describe the dance of the longer projects and the shorter creative excursions. Both approaches are necessary.

Eventually, I realized that I couldn’t use a PBL framework all the time. Sometimes, a better option was to go with a more traditional unit plan but incorporate a smaller design sprint or a mini-project. The following chart demonstrates the differences in each approach.

3 Approaches to Creative Projects

While project-based learning is a powerful, authentic way to learn, we don’t always need to do longer PBL units. Sometimes what we need are shorter design sprints and mini-projects:





Project-Based Learning
Description Sprints are shorter opportunities for creative work that often focus on one key area of the creative process (brainstorming, problem-solving, rapid prototyping) Mini-projects are shorter projects that still encompass most of the elements of PBL. They typically last around a week and give students a flavor of project-based learning. Project-based learning is a pedagogical framework where students learn the content through an authentic project.
Timeframe 45-90 minutes 3-5 days 3-9 weeks
Examples Divergent Thinking Challenge, Wonder Day Project, STEM Challenge Independent Science Experiment, Tiny House Project, Curiositycast Project, Invent a sport History Documentary Project, Service Learning Project, Entrepreneur Design Thinking Project, Genius Hour Project
Standards Introducing concept standards, quick practice of single skill-based standards, quick practice of methods standards Deeper dive into concept standards, practicing multiple skill-based standards together, practicing method standards grouped together A deep dive into concept standards (learning a concept in-depth) while integrating multiple skill-based standards and using method standards for an extended time
When to Implement This Approach Introducing a unit, a closing activity for a unit, breaking the monotony of a longer project, using it on a “lame duck” day Shorter unit plans with a narrower focus, final week or first week of a quarter Longer unit plans with multiple concept or methods standards that are related to each other, a clear connection between the content and an authentic context
Models to Consider Rapid prototyping, STEM challenges, design sprints, inquiry-based model*, game-based / simulation-based model Scientific method, engineering method, design thinking (abbreviated), inquiry-based model*, problem-based model* Engineering model, design thinking model, inquiry-based model, service learning model
Audience Private or within the school Private, within the school, or public / authentic audience Requires an authentic audience with a strong emphasis on empathy
Strengths This approach works quickly and can be adapted into more traditional lesson pedagogical frameworks. You can focus on a narrower part of the creative process (research, prototyping, problem-solving, etc.). This approach often incorporates necessary movement and hands-on learning. The faster pace of a sprint can help students avoid stagnation and risk-aversion. It tends to be low-risk with more permission to “fail forward.” This approach encompasses many of the elements of PBL while sticking with a tighter schedule. Students experience less project fatigue while they move through each phase of the mini-project but there’s still a depth involved and an opportunity for an authentic audience / context. Students learn the building blocks of basic project management as they develop collaboration skills. This approach encourages students to make connections between the subject matter and a real-world context. The longer project encourages a fully developed creative process with ample time for each phase. The emphasis on an authentic audience allows for deeper empathy to develop. Students learn the content through the project in a way that allows the learning to stick.
Challenges It lacks an authentic context. The lack of revision time can lead to sprints that lack the depth needed in creative work. If there’s no reflection, it can come across as a fun activity and little more. Mini-projects can feel rushed and students who fall behind during one phase might end up giving up too easily. The lack of longer revision time means certain students might focus on the finished product and rush through the creative process without engaging in longer, more open-ended creative thinking. An authentic project-based learning unit takes weeks to complete. This is a challenge with crowded curriculum maps or in situations where there is a greater need for repetition and recall as they develop practical skills. If alignment isn’t solid and assessment isn’t well-embedded students can fail to reflect on their learning and improve in their metacognition.



Sprints are shorter opportunities for creative work that often focus on one key area of the creative process. Students might focus on brainstorming as they generate novel uses for random items in a divergent thinking challenge. They would then engage in rapid prototyping:

Note that this sprint doesn’t include any audience clarification, any research, or any larger launch of the project. By contrast, you might want students to focus on asking questions, engaging in research, and presenting their findings through something like a Wonder Day project.

You might also have students engage in a problem-solving sprint. For example, in a math class, they might solve the problem of making baseball faster with a challenge like, “What could be done to make MLB games last less than 2.5 hours?” Students would then analyze a curation of baseball statistics before pitching their solutions in the form of a podcast.

These sprints tend to be quick and flexible and you can use them to introduce a new idea, to dive deeper into a current concept, or as a culminating activity at the close of the unit. They can also function as a single-day stand alone on days where multiple students are absent (like the last day before winter break).


Mini-projects are shorter projects that still encompass most of the elements of PBL. They typically last around a week and give students a flavor of project-based learning. Students typically work through each phase of a project in a way that is more tightly controlled. They might do an independent science experiment oriented around a MythBusters type of question. Or they might practice volume, surface area, and proportional reasoning with a Tiny House project:

They might practice using simple machines and review geometric shapes by redesigning the school playground. Or they might do a longer book review video (or a book preview video for the library) after dong independent silent reading. Often, these projects look like a longer PBL project but they are simpler and more manageable. They may or may not have an authentic audience at the end.


Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning is a pedagogical framework where students learn the content through an authentic project. Some experts view inquiry-based learning and problem-based learning as an entirely different pedagogical framework than project-based learning. Others view them as overlapping frameworks. Still, others view project-based learning as a “way of teaching,” with multiple models, including inquiry-based learning and problem-based learning.

The following video explores what project-based learning is and how it works:

Project-based learning is different from traditional classroom projects in the following ways:

  • Learning through projects rather than using culminating projects
  • Student choice in design instead of following a set of instructions (Chris Lehmann makes the distinction of recipe-based learning versus project-based leanring)
  • Student inquiry rather than pre-planned questions
  • Using self and peer assessment instead of relying solely on teacher assessment
  • Student ownership of process rather than teacher ownership of process

PBL works identifies the following seven project design elements:

  1. Challenging Problem or Question
  2. Sustained Inquiry
  3. Authenticity
  4. Student Voice & Choice
  5. Reflection
  6. Critique & Revision
  7. Public Product

Note that project-based learning can work in tandem with other pedagogical models, like inquiry-based learning, design thinking, and problem-based learning. But the key idea remains that students are learning through projects and as a result they engage in deeper learning.

Despite the emphasis on student voice and choice, I’ve found that structure is vital for PBL.

Structure is vital for creative thinkingAs educators, we need to use structures and protocols that ensure students can collaborate and work interdependently. We can help students engage in project management:

We can also save time and help students stay on track by breaking the project into distinct phases. There are many ways to organize PBL but one of my favorite approaches is to use an overlap of project-based learning and design thinking. However, you might organize your PBL using the engineering model, inquiry-based model, or service learning model.


In some cases, students might work on a longer independent project like a Genius Hour, where students get to chase their curiosity while they create something entirely new. Genius Hour is an example of PBL centered on student interests. They’re essentially passion projects or independent projects that focus on an overlap of creativity and curiosity.

Genius Hour (or 20% Time) projects begin with a simple idea: give students a dedicated period of time to pursue their passions, interests, and questions in a creative way. It’s an idea popularized by Google but one that has existed for years in the technology industry. Here’s how it works:

With Genius Hour, students own the entire journey: They choose the topics based upon their own geeky interests. It doesn’t have to be a traditionally academic area. They might like fashion or food or sports or Legos or Minecraft or deep sea creatures. They can then match these topics with topic-neutral standards. Students ask the questions and engage in their own research to find the answers. Along the way, they design their own plan of instruction. They decide on the resources and activities. Each student sets goals and engages in self-assessment. They work at their own pace and set their own deadlines. Students decide on the grouping. Some work alone. Others work in pairs or small groups. In the end, students figure out what they will make and how they will share their learning with the world. A word of caution: It’s not a free-for-all. The best Genius Hour projects have systems and structures that empower students to reach their full potential.

Other times, though, you might have a project that is more collaborative and focused on solving a problem. It might be a service learning project based on a community issue. It might be a journalism project where students engage in research and produce a media package with a podcast, blog post, and video series. It might be a longer STEM project connected to the community. A teacher I know had her students design board games for a nursing home and senior center. Her students learned about probability and statistics while designing actual games that people would play.


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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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