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It’s a few days before Christmas and I expect a challenge. Students will be checked-out or hyper. However, to my surprise, they are fully engaged in a project that combines reading, writing, global awareness and critical thinking.

I’ve mentioned before that this year has been challenging. However, I am realizing that my students excel when I approach a subject with a project-based framework. In past years, I started with a full project-based approach. This year, I started out a little more slowly.

Here are some things I’ve learned over the last few years as I’ve transitioned toward a more project-based approach:

  1. Students need to be a part of the planning process. This is a pretty simple concept, but it was the hardest thing for me to realize. Student ownership needs to include students helping develop the essential questions, the scenario and the audience for projects. It took me a long time to realize that good projects begin with student inquiry.
  2. It’s about the learning.  Projects aren’t crafts. They’re about problem-solving. However, when I look back to my own experiences in school, I remember “projects” that were nothing more than step-by-step directions with scissors, paper and glue. This is why I include moments of structured discourse throughout the projects. I want to see them articulate what they are learning through the process as well as the product.
  3. Students need to learn about paradigm shifts. For many students, project-based learning goes against the style of schooling they are used to. For this reason, we talk about the following paradigm shifts: from isolation to integration, from completion to mastery, from choices to freedom, from differentiation to personalization.
  4. Sometimes it fails. I had a project that seemed like it would work and then two days into it, I realized that it wasn’t working. It was too complex, too difficult and required resources we didn’t have.
  5. Interdependence is critical. I used to view projects as independent activities and then I switched to totally dependence-based group projects. I now see a need for both, a sort-of middle zone that includes some independent and some group work.
  6. Students need varying levels of support. Some students need one-on-one conferences to go over difficult concepts. Some need tutorials or screen casts. Some need sentence stems and front-loaded vocabulary for their language acquisition issues. Still, others need help with breaking down the tasks and setting up their own deadlines. But I’ve learned this: sometimes it’s best to just get out of the way.
  7. Project-based learning doesn’t diminish the role of the teacher. All the talk of “guide on the side” can make it sound like a teacher is nothing more than a glorified babysitter. I’ve found that I am more active, building closer relationships, asking more questions in a project-based environment. It’s less about managing a large group and more about working with individual students.
  8. The testing culture is the biggest enemy to project-based learning. I don’t mind teaching to the standards, but I struggle with taking their learning from the test. The tests are shallow, isolated facts based upon recognition while the projects require critical, connected thinking.
  9. Assessment is vital to the process. I used to create projects with a rubric at the end. Now, I encourage student self-assessment. I ask students to be evaluative as well as descriptive. We do one-on-one conferences. It becomes less about testing and more about constant, in-the-moment, meaningful assessment.
  10. We don’t always do projects. Sometimes I give short lectures with discussion. Sometimes we brainstorm things together as a class. Students write short blog posts and read their novels silently. Sometimes in math, we do a unit without a project.

Getting Started with Project-Based Learning

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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


  • This is a great list for those thinking about using PBL as an instructional approach AND for those who need to reflect on their experiences with PBL. I'll be sharing it with our teachers and an RT in #pblchat. Thanks.

  • emergentmath says:

    Agree with Chris – this is great stuff. I might make this required reading for every teacher I work with in regards to PBL from here on out. Thanks for posting this, John.

    — Geoff

  • Terrific list! Number 3 is the one everyone forgets, which is why Number 1 is also often overlooked. As we always say at BIE, if you're working harder than the students, it's not PBL! Of course, as your Number 7 points out, you'll still be working…it'll just be more engaging!

  • Alan Stange says:

    I appreciated reading this too John. I've been doing more PBL in my room. I'll try to be mindful of your comments. Number 3 is important. Kids need to understand that they are part of the change.

  • Alan Stange says:

    I appreciated reading this too John. I've been doing more PBL in my room. I'll try to be mindful of your comments. Number 3 is important. Kids need to understand that they are part of the change.

  • Great post! This really helped me put things in perspective after my first semester of full PBL.

  • There always seems to be a bit of a debate re assessment. "In the moment" is for short-term immediate learning to assess your instruction or identify the student learning needs. In my opinion, there is still need for more than a rubric or self-assessment to determine the student's mastery of the content or skills.

  • Really enjoyed your list…very complete and informative.

  • vridhi says:

    John, great post – Projecy Based Learning is a great tool and I think that involving students in the decision-making process is a great way to include them in the project. As a Psychology graduate, I think that students learn best when topics are taught to them around their area of interest. Another way you might want to introduce PBL is to ask students to write down their interests and design fun math challenges within those scenarios. Serious games are a great way to combine education and entertainment. You can check out my website for more information on game based projects for learning! Cheers – Vridhi

  • Eric Roth says:

    Thank you for sharing these timely reminders as I plan the semester activities.

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