How the Heck Do You Manage a Project-Based Classroom?

You’ve read the blog posts, tweets, and articles.

Maybe you’ve even attended some conferences or seen someone speak live.

They say, “Project-based learning changed my role as a teacher. I could talk to more students. I became a guide and coach instead of talking at kids all day.”

And you think, that sounds awesome! It sounds like a dream classroom.

So, you start.

You find a PBL lesson or unit to do with your class.

The kids are excited. Or maybe they are nervous. Or maybe they just want a worksheet. In any case, you and the students jump into this new experience ready for anything.

As the project continues you begin to feel more and more overwhelmed.

How can I talk to every kid and every group you wonder? How can I manage all these different projects happening at the same time? How can I grade and assess the work the students are doing while still being supportive and challenging them to take risks?

Then it hits. Pure panic.

You wonder why you started down this path in the first place. The class feels out of control. The projects aren’t going as planned, and you are in too deep to stop now!

If you are feeling this way or have ever felt this way, then you’ve joined all of us that have made the switch to PBL in our classrooms.

It can be tough! In fact, it is downright scary sometimes to give up control, allow for students to go off the beaten path, and really work through a problem to solve.

But, I’m here to say that it can be done. That even though you may give up some creative control, you’ll still have to make sure there is structure during the project and help provide that for students. Here are four ways to help manage the PBL experience and make it one that allows for your role to morph into the Guide on the Ride, instead of Guide on the Side.

Four Ways to Manage Project Based Learning

1.You Can Give Choice and Ownership While Still Providing a Clear Structure

One of the first things I learned about PBL was that the traps were on opposite sides of the spectrum.

Trap #1 was giving 18 specific steps for students to follow with an extremely detailed rubric. While the project would be very structured, you would also get back the exact same project product from every student (or group). Chris Lehmann calls this “recipe-based learning” not project-based learning.

We want students to be chefs, not cooks.

However, Trap #2 is giving too much freedom in structure, time, and checkpoints. This leads to stalling at certain points and never getting to the actual creation piece (or getting there too quickly).

I’ve tinkered with all different types of ways to structure PBL, but have fallen in love with Design Thinking as a framework for the creative process.

The LAUNCH Cycle outlines creative work from start to finish. From listening and learning to navigating ideas, to highlight what works, the LAUNCH Cycle builds capacity and clarity for teachers and students who are making, building, tinkering, and creating.

Here are the phases as we describe them in our book. LAUNCH:

L: Look, Listen, and Learn
In the first phase, students look, listen, and learn.The goal here is awareness. It might be a sense of wonder at a process or an awareness of a problem or a sense of empathy toward an audience.

A: Ask Tons of Questions
Sparked by curiosity, students move to the second phase, where they ask tons of questions. They can share these questions with friends, teachers, mentors, and the world (especially online sites like Quora).

U: Understanding the Process and/or Problem
This leads to understanding the process or problem through an authentic research experience. They might conduct interviews or needs assessments, research articles, watch videos, or analyze data. During this phase, they are constantly putting their work out for others to look at and give feedback.

N: Navigate Ideas
Students apply that newly acquired knowledge to potential solutions. In this phase, they navigate ideas. Here they not only brainstorm, but they also analyze ideas, combine ideas, and generate a concept for what they will create.

C: Create a Prototype
In this next phase, they create a prototype. It might be a digital work or a tangible product, a work of art or something they engineer. It might even be an action or an event or a system.

H: Highlight and Fix
Next, they begin to highlight what’s working and fix what’s failing. The goal here is to view this revision process as an experiment full of iterations, where every mistake takes them closer to success. As they share what they’ve made, the feedback they receive will be key to the revision process.

Launch to an Audience

Then, when it’s done, it’s ready to launch. In the launch phase, they send it to an authentic audience. They share their work with the world!

This was the piece of the 20% Project and future projects I did with my students (like Project: Global Inform, 2030Schools, Flat Classroom Project, NetGen Ed Project) — that took it to the next level!

2. Every Student/Group Needs an Action Plan

Yes, that’s right. It doesn’t matter if you are working with five-year-olds or eighteen-year-olds. PBL requires an action plan. What is going to be learned, created, shared? When is it going to be completed by? Who is going to be responsible? What barriers and obstacles might be in the way? What resources are needed?

Now, this is going to look different at each level, but the goal is to have students outline what they are going to accomplish (and when) before they actually start.

It’s backwards design for students, and it helps them create goals and a structure for their creative work.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 2.43.14 PM

The best benefit of an action plan is that it gives the teachers and the students common places to have checkpoint conversations and conferences throughout the project.

Which leads to our next way to manage PBL.

3. Short Conferences That Pack a Punch

Conferences are one of the most underutilized approaches to managing a PBL experience. However, they can be extremely practical and powerful when done with a purpose.

And (key point here), they don’t need to be a long and arduous process for teacher or student.

I love how John Spencer lays out the three types of student conferences:

Types of Conferences via John Spencer

The Feedback conference happens during the process as the student or group is asking for help and insight from the teacher.

The Reflection conference happens after they have completed one of the steps in the action plan as the teacher asks questions to check for understanding.

The Mastery conference happens throughout the process as both the students and the teacher understand what is being assessed and what is the goal.

4. Having Students Reflect and Document on a Weekly Basis

Project management should not fall entirely on the shoulders of a teacher. When students are working their way through a problem to solve, there will be many times they have to re-route, shift perspectives, try something new, or throw out an approach that wasn’t working.

If they have to ask permission every time they do this, then a teacher will be bogged down in answering the specific requests.

If they do not ask permission and don’t share the changes, the teacher will often be left behind on where the project is headed and how they can help guide.

This is where sharing, document, and reflecting come into play as a specific way to help manage PBL.

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 2.52.56 PM

As the above picture shows, one of the ways my students reflected during Genius Hour was to answer questions about what they learned, what they made, what goals they had, and what went well (as well as what things they tried that did not work out).

We’ve had students reflect and document their project using all kinds of tools and forms. Blogs, podcasts, vlogging using tools such as soundcloud, wordpress, SeeSaw, youtube, flipgrid, and so much more.

The key is to have students reflect, share, and document in a place that you have access to as a teacher.

Sometimes it can be as simple as a Google Form or shared Google Doc.

Here you can follow along with the project, giving comments as needed, and checking in with students or groups who may need some extra attention that class period or week.

Bringing It All Together

Ultimately, we want PBL to feel as real and authentic as possible.

That does not mean that we get rid of deadlines. We have them in the real world!

It does not mean that we get rid of checkpoints and benchmarks. We have them in the real world!

It does not mean we get rid of formative and informal conversations. You get the point 🙂

Our goal is to guide students on their learning journey, but also to be a resource on things that go well beyond content and skills (such as time management, how to reach out to mentors, getting through a rough patch, communication, etc).

What are some ways you help manage the PBL experience in your classroom? Please share out with everyone in the comments below!

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Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Ashiedu Jude says:

    Thanks for the direction. It is helpful and I am going to test it too.

  • Robin Hines says:

    This sounds great! I love the structure. It’s so helpful to hear what does and doesn’t work. I’m looking for PBL ideas that support Texas standards for English grades 7/8 . Any ideas for resources?

  • Rebecca Jones says:

    Hi A.J.,
    I’m a first year teacher and decided to try out Genius Hour for my 8th grade students. We are finishing up a trimester long Genius Hour project, the caveat is they only met with me once a week for 50 minutes. Also, I did not encourage the kids to invent something or solve a problem; I spun the project as time for them to research something they were interested in. One question I have is how to hold students accountable for work that is so little so far apart. I used the LAUNCH framework as a checklist requiring teacher check in but still had those handful of students that preferred to not use their time wisely during class. Your advice is welcome. Thanks!

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  • Carrie says:

    Thank you for this post – I am in the middle of the mess of implementing Genius Hour for the first time for grades K to 5. Inspired by your discussion of backwards design, I had my upper-grade students fill out “roadmaps” to give them a better idea of what tasks they need to do to complete their project. I’ve been having students reflect in their journals, but I will also be experimenting with having them use digital tools to reflect.

  • […] Inspired by AJ Juliani’s post on managing project-based learning, I decided to have students do some backwards design. Students completed a roadmap to help them […]

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