A Checklist for Planning Project-Based Learning From Scratch

Three of my favorite Project-Based Learning experiences took shape in completely different ways and circumstances.

My students and I created “Project: Global Inform” together, after tweaking the original assignment. My students were studying genocide and human rights violations, and the culminating activity was writing a letter/email to a politician who could help stop the injustices that were happening around the world, or in our own community. My students wanted to do more, and Project: Global Inform was born. Instead of writing letters, their groups created Awareness Campaigns using multi-media, social media, and good ol’ word of mouth to push the conversation much wider and farther than a single letter would do.

My students loved the Flat Classroom Project. This was created by Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay. We jumped in full-steam collaborating with students from four different countries to research topics like outsourcing, future of work, off-shoring, insourcing, supply chaining and more. Then they created videos to share their collaborative research and analysis. This project was a dive into global PBL, and we were both challenged by the content, but also by the time difference and cultural differences that came working with students from around the globe.

The 20% Project (aka Genius Hour) was a third project that actually started from complete scratch. We jumped in without a true roadmap as students came up with a purpose, passion, and strategy for what they would learn and create over the semester. With many ups and downs, came a lot of wins and losses. But, above all else, the students were engaged, empowered, and also a bit uneasy with the process. We shared our failed attempts widely throughout the project, and the final presentations were live-streamed to an authentic audience.

In each case (Project: Global Inform, Flat Classroom Project, 20% Project), the PBL transformed how my students were learning but also how they were assessed on their learning and could demonstrate their understanding. All three of these projects were successful but also were tweaked in subsequent years with other classes. None of them were a “finished product” in the sense that there was no room for growth. There was a ton of learning that happened on my end!

Why is this so important?

Well, I get the question all the time: Where do I start with PBL?

The answer I give here has three parts because I believe you can start in three separate areas on your Project-Based Learning journey.

#1. Start with a proven project that you can adopt and adapt as you see fit with your students.

This happened when we did the Flat Classroom Project. This was created by Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay. The crafted the project with each other, building on the work they were each doing with students and focused on the premise of having a global learning project where students from around the world could collaborate with each other.

They were the chefs of this project, and I was a cook, taking notes on the recipe along the way. They provided goals, outcomes, a step-by-step process, meetings to coordinate, deadlines, and assessments for the student work.

As the teacher, there were certain areas of the project I had to tweak and change along the way. This was giving my students more time to research, and more time to create their videos. It was connecting with other teachers in the project to make sure our students were connecting and collaborating online. It was stepping in for a teachable moment about playing games with your new friends from Europe vs working together.

Yet, the project design allowed me to have much more freedom as a guide because I was not worried the entire time about whether or not things would work and how students would engage with the content. This had all been pre-designed and planned by Vicki, Julie, and their team.

Starting with a proven template gave me the boost I needed to try out different types of PBL with my students after a successful experience.

#2. Modify an existing activity, assessment, unit, or project.

We had recently read Night by Elie Wiesel, and this quote in particular guided our campaign to create awareness about human rights violations:


After our discussion about human rights violations, child soldiers, and genocide that was currently happening in our world right now–my students wanted to DO something.

As a class, we decided to not be bystanders and to take a side. This new project would be a chance to use our voice to spread awareness.

Traditionally, during this Unit students had written a position paper on the Holocaust and Genocide in general, as well as send a letter/email to a Senator about a current human rights violation.

My group of students wanted to take this further. Together we crafted a new project that would focus on creating awareness about current human rights violations.

I say WE because the students had a lot of input into how this project would look, what they would be measured on, and what the ultimate goals and objectives would be.

Project: Global Inform (PGI) was created in the 2008-2009 school year. The students picked their own groups and researched current human rights violations. Each group picked a violation they felt particularly passionate about and began to develop an action plan. Their action plans allowed the students to judge how effective each method of media was at spreading information and creating awareness. At the end of Project: Global Inform’s first run, hundreds of people had been met face-to-face with

At the end of Project: Global Inform’s first run, hundreds of people had been met face-to-face with information they did not know, while thousands of other teens and young adults saw videos, visited websites, and became Twitter and Facebook fans of media meant to create awareness.

In 2009-2010 Wissahickon High School took Project: Global Inform to the next level. Over 110 students participated and this time the students were even more creative. In addition to the video, web, and Facebook campaigns – groups began to host events dedicated to raising awareness for their cause. This time, not only was information spread, but money was also raised for organizations currently fighting against human rights violations. Thousands of dollars were raised in just under six weeks, showing that students do have the power to make a difference.

Project: Global Inform was one of my proudest moments as a teacher. It still gives me chills when I look at the work these 16 and 17-year-oldd students were doing to spread awareness on such serious violations.

And it was part of our curriculum, not an added piece. Layer the work into curriculum instead of making it something added to the work you are already doing.

This was a case of modifying something existing into something that created a better learning experience through PBL.

#3. Planning a PBL Unit From Scratch

Katherine von Jan explains how Google’s idea came to be in her article, “Pursue Passion: Demand Google 20% Time at School”:

“Google’s “20% Time”, inspired by Sergey Brin’s and Larry Page’s Montessori School experience, is a philosophy and policy that every Google employee spend 20% of their time (the equivalent of a full work day each week) working on ideas and projects that interest that employee. They are encouraged to explore anything other than their normal day-to-day job. As a result50% of all Google’s products by 2009 originated from the 20% free time, including Gmail. Real break-through happens when we are free from others’ expectations and driven by individual passion.”

When I read her article and finished Dan Pink’s book Drive, I had to seriously reconsider what I was doing with my students. Extrinsic motivation can only go so far in education, and above everything else I want my students to be people who enjoy learning. However, as educators many times we are constrained by curriculum and standards. This idea came and went during the fall months before resurfacing in December 2011.

In December two things happened that made me decide almost immediately that this had to happen. First, I was part of the curriculum process at my school and really started to delve into the “why we do what we do” questions that allude me most of the time during the daily grind. I also was reading texts about “inquiry-based learning” and the “understanding by design” framework.

Second, I was challenged by Thomas Gaffey (he’s the best math teacher I’ve ever met) to do “new things in new ways” at the Microsoft Innovative Educator program. The 20% time seemed like a new way to engage and motivate students to learn. If we want to prepare students in high school to be life-long learners, assets to their communities, and able to take a successful next step in their academic lives (i.e. college), then this project would not only change my pedagogy, but also their view on learning after high school.

The day after winter break I “assigned the project”. In essence, high school students have spent most of their academic lives being told what to do. Their grades are then dependent on how well they completed the assigned tasks. Most teenagers spend their free time doing things they are “not told to do”. For example, most parents aren’t yelling at their son to play video games, or at their daughter to spend three hours on Facebook. These actions are done because teenagers want to do them (and in part because they are told many times not to do this). My class agreed that most teenagers “want to do what they want to do, and not what others tell them”.

So this project, I said, was me telling them to do something that they want to do, with their time that it is usually spent doing what other people want them to do (that’s a mouthful). The guidelines were simple. Here is the handout:

The 20% Project*

1. For the rest of the year, 20% of your time in my class will be spent creating something you want to make.

2. It has to be some type of learning, and you have to document it (journal etc).

3. You’ll present your accomplishments to the class twice (and will not be graded on it).

4. That’s it. Have fun. Find your passion. Explore it. Enjoy learning what you want.


Mass confusion set in. Most of my students were trying to figure out what the catch was, asking questions like: “So what are we getting credit for?”, “What kinds of things can we do?”, “Why aren’t we being graded?”, and “I don’t get it Mr. J, what are we supposed to be doing?”

After a few minutes more of explanation, my students began to come around. I was not going to grade them on this project, but I was going to keep them accountable. Many times in education we believe the only way to hold students accountable is by giving some form of assessment. For this project, they began documenting their learning through writing (also, possible podcasts or video journals), and they presented to the class their “learning journey” through a TED-style talk.

After creating this project from scratch, it got me thinking about the best practices around project-based learning.

How do we identify proven (pre-existing) PBL experiences that will work for our students?

How do we tweak and modify existing activities and units to a PBL experience that will work for our learners?

How do we create a PBL unit from scratch, while hitting the key pieces that make up effective PBL?

The following is a checklist we’ve been using to plan, create, modify, and assess various PBL units and experiences. It is by no means a complete unit planning guide, but instead, a one-page checklist that identifies the key areas of effective PBL and forces you to consider whether or not the project you are doing with your students has many of these pieces involved.

Because many teachers, schools, and districts already have lesson planning guidelines and best practices around how they create units, we needed to create something flexible.

This checklist can work with any pre-existing PBL unit as an auditing tool. It can work while you are modifying an activity into a PBL experience as a place to start. And, for those of you creating a PBL unit from scratch, it can be a guiding document to start the process and check where your project stands.

A Checklist for Planning a PBL Unit


____ Teacher defined learning goals.

____ Learner defined learning goals.

Note: There were many successful PBL experiences where I (as the teacher) defined all of the learning goals. However, when my students had some voice in their learning goals and outcomes, the engagement rose rigth from the beginning. Depending on age level and circumstances you may only check one of these boxes.


____ Core standards specific to level/subject

____ Cognitive skills

____ Soft skills (or 21st-century skills)

____ ISTE NETS skills

Note: There are many different skills and standards that can be acquired, mastered, and assessed during PBL. The key here is to identify these before, during, and after the PBL experience.


____ Problem/question is defined at the start of the project.

____ Problem/question is refined during the project.

____ Authentic Audience is defined before the start of the project.

____ Authentic Audience is refined during the project.

Note: I keep problem/question combined here, but sometimes it may be both, or they may be separate. PBL (especially if you are looking at it through the lens of the design process) may also start with a product in mind, awareness of an issue, a natural phenomenon, or empathy. In each of these cases, they’ll have a guiding question and/or problem that pushes the work forward. An audience is a key component because it makes the problem/question relevant to the learner in an authentic way (instead of just playing the game of school).


____ Learning targets are defined and measurable.

____ Standards are aligned to tasks throughout the experience.

____ Student choice in any of following: content, process, tools, materials, technology, & demonstrating understanding.

Note: Learning is the goal of PBL. Student choice drives ownership, which drives engagement/empowerment, and ultimately a deeper learning experience. Understanding how the standards and learning targets are connected to the PBL process is part of the planning that moves a project past just being an arts and crafts activity.


____ Learners collaborate with each other.

____ Work with mentors.

Note: Collaboration can take shape in many different forms. Even if the PBL experience is an individual process, collaboration is an authentic piece of the research and working with mentors levels up the relevancy of the work.


____ Time built in for reflection and an iterative process.

____ Product is created & made available to a real audience.

Note: A Product does not have to be a physical product. It can be a digital product. It can be an experience. It can be a movement. It can be an event. There are many different creative forms of a product, so be sure to not limit what this might look like. Providing time and support for reflection, self-assessment, and iteration is a key to making something worthy of sharing with a real audience that can benefit from the product.

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Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Helen Holland says:

    AJ, thanks so much for this very helpful guide to starting PBL and for the checklist. I have joined a professional learning team at my school and we are looking into PBL. We are all excited to give it a go but also very green. My research has included investigating your blogs with interest and I have found them a great source of practical help. This particular post really gives my team some ‘legs’ to begin. You have set it out in a way that ensures that whole concept is not too daunting to consider. Thanks very much for your continued inspiration and pragmatic guidance.

  • Judith Yero says:

    You may already be familiar with Self-Determination Theory (see Ryan and Deci (2017) Self Determination Theory), but PBL (learner-driven) and 20% time meet the three psychological needs identified in the theory–autonomy, competence, and relatedness. It’s no surprise that students bloom when the focus shifts from teaching to learning. The questions your students asked when you started 20% time are a sad reminder that students are accustomed to being told what, when, and how to learn for too many years. The self-pacing of this type of learning is also consistent with the principles of individuality described by Todd Rose in his excellent book The End of Average.

  • Libbie Royko says:

    AJ, Are you aware of any PBL lists including description and process that would extend 8th grade Social Studies (American History) content? I loved your high school example of human rights violations inquiry and student-led actions. I might need to somehow modify that as my students are younger. Any ideas or can you point me in the right direction?

  • Meri says:

    Thank you, AJ
    This is a way easier checklist than what I tried to create and share with our team of teachers for PBL or Genius Hour. We are new to the idea but I love the fact that students are sharing and creating with each other.
    Thanks again

  • Leslie says:

    In that last scenario Guided Inquiry Design would’ve been a really helpful tool for you to use as a framework for the design of a unit where kids are getting to do what they want. The research that backs that design (Kuhlthau, 2004) describe some students experience and from that we developed our GID framework. The Asst. Superintendant of Norman Public Schools reached out to you about our model and how it aligns with your work. You’d like it! Check out more at https://guidedinquirydesign.com
    Leslie Maniotes, PhD

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