A Project-Based Learning Activity That Can Work in Any Classroom

In our last post, we dove into a three-step system to get students to do the talking. Getting them to open up and do the majority of talking (and learning) is not as easy as some make it out to be.

In fact, for me, it was incredibly difficult.

The three-step system scaffolded a way for students to take on more and more of the discussion responsibilities until they were ready to take over. Here are the three steps in a nutshell:

Three step process to get students talking

Now that I had students talking in my classes, I also wanted to get them creating, making and designing.

But, I had the same problem with project-based learning that I did with getting students to own the discussion and do the talking (instead of me doing all the talking).

I was really bad at scaffolding PBL opportunities for my students to own that process as well. Too often my scaffolding was me “telling them” what to do.

Most of the “project-based learning” I had my students do, looked something like this:

  1. Teach the students about a concept or particular content.
  2. Have them demonstrate their learning in various ways.
  3. Give them an end of the unit project.
  4. Provide detailed steps to complete the project in a handout.
  5. Provide detailed unit to assess the project in a handout.
  6. Give students a detailed timeline on when things should be done for the project.
  7. Help students navigate project.
  8. Collect student projects.
  9. Notice that all of their projects look eerily similar, almost like they were following a recipe ūüėČ
  10. Grade the projects and hand them back with feedback.
  11. Repeat.

The problem with these projects was the recipe-like nature that happened when students began handing things in.

My students were still just trying to follow the rules, instead of actually creating something on their own that they could be proud about.

During one of these projects (when students had inevitably gone through the motions) I had to ask my students the question:

What was the last project or school assignment you did that left you with a feeling of accomplishment?

The responses all fell into two categories:

  1. Students were accomplished when they received a grade higher than what they expected to receive and/or if the class was known as difficult and challenging.
  2. Projects where they had choice in what they were creating and solving (there weren’t that many with this response). Most of them said this happened outside of school.

I wondered how I could do project-based learning in my class where students would be challenged, engaged, and also inspired to do great work they would be proud of (instead of only work that would get them a grade)…

How My View Changed On Project Based Learning

You ever have one of those moments where you wonder what you are doing with your life? I mean, at the very least, you are like me and have had times where something catches you off guard and makes you rethink your purpose and impact on the world.

This happened when Patrick Larkin shared a video of students in his school district who created a PSA (Public Service Announcement) that went viral online. In the video (shared below) the students use paper and their phone to record a silent PSA to end the use of the “R-word” in our schools and in our daily lives. It really spoke to me seeing how much of an impact these students could have on their world while still in school (7th grade).

The project itself was so simple.

First, choose a problem in your school that is also impacting the world.

Then, figure out how to solve this problem and share your solution with your classmates, school, and world.

They didn’t need to use fancy technology. They only used printed out paper with text (could have wrote it by hand) and a phone to video their PSA.

The key was the final piece. Share their PSA project with the world. This authentic audience kept the students engaged and empowered them to create something that mattered more than fridge art.

I realized that this type of short project is exactly how you can scaffold PBL for students of any age.

How to Scaffold PBL So Students Are Ready

PBL in Any Classroom via @ajjuliani

Before jumping into Design Challenges, Maker Projects, and Genius Hour, I would always do an activity that followed the simple process shared above. This PSA project can be done in any subject and in any grade level (with modifications of course).

I’ll break down the example PSA Project that I use all of the time in workshops to show how this is possible. The key elements are that you choose content that you want the students to learn, but give them a choice in which content they choose.

After that, the project is simple.

Research what the world needs to know about ____, and what they can do about _____.

Then create a PSA to demonstrate that information and understanding.

For my example, I want my students to learn about the United Nations 2030 Goals. So it would look like this:

Research what the world needs to know about one of the UN 2030 GOALS, and what they can do about _____.

Here is the step-by-step process for scaffolding PBL with a PSA Project:

Step #1: Present the Content that Students Are Going to Learn (then give choice on which area they learn more about)

Note: Some students will have background knowledge, others may not have much background knowledge and that is ok.

For this example, I give learners the topic of the UN 2030 Goals. The content they are going to learn is about these UN 2030 Goals (which works well because most folks don’t have a deep understanding or much knowledge about the goals).

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Second, I ask them to get into small groups (2-3 people) and choose a goal that resonates with them personally. This is key because the more meaningful and relevant the activity becomes, the more effort and commitment the team will have towards the project.

It’s also important to note that I do not give a lot of time for this activity. Thirty minutes max amount of time. It should be a one-class activity in school where time and resources may be limited.

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Step #2: Have Students Research the Content (What Does the World Need to Know About it and What Can They Do About It)

Once the goal (content) has been chosen it’s time to research! The key here is to research quickly and efficiently.

If you have younger kids, provide stations that have bits and pieces of the research ready to consume. Things like videos, articles, pictures, graphs are key to giving young students a head-start on the research.

If you have older students (or adult learners) feel free to point them towards a couple websites or directions to research online. For the UN 2030 Goals I always choose GlobalGoals.org as a starting place.

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The other important piece to remember during this research step is that you must give a specific time of how long (or else they’ll get stuck in more and more research). You have to also give very specific things they are looking for (such as what the world needs to know about the 2030 goal and what they can do about it to help out).

Step #3: Create a PSA

Here is where we climb up the Bloom’s taxonomy and get students making and creating. When you use this activity with a specific piece of content (2030 Goals, Periodic Table of Elements, historical figures, scenes from a play, author study etc) the project becomes about demonstrating your understanding of this content through creating the PSA.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.35.48 AM

You can give the option of creating a PSA much like the one shared above (The R-Word) or learners can create it with video, with a slideshow, a skit, or any other type of way to spread their knowledge and understanding.

We are scaffolding PBL here so a key point to remember during the creation stage is that many times students will want to mimic or copy what they saw as the example (or exemplar) given to the whole class.

This is something to keep an eye on, but also¬†a teaching moment. I always share Austin Kleon’s good vs bad copying chart to get my students thinking about personalizing their PSA’s and projects:


Once students are finished creating, the project is not yet done! Two key pieces remain. First, they have to share this with a bigger audience than just themselves and their classmates.

Sharing it with the world gives the students an authentic audience. As a teacher, I’d try to find various audiences for my students to share their work with, but sometimes throwing it up on Youtube and social media is enough to get the positive peer pressure working!

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Finally, you’ll want to have the students reflect on what they learned, what they created, and what they would do differently.

This reflection continues the learning well after the “project” has been completed.

The final product should never be the end of a learning experience, only the beginning of the next learning experience.

Don’t Just Teach What You Know, Teach What You Are Learning

When starting students on a journey with Project-Based Learning we can think of it as a journey where the travel is just as important as the destination.

Learning happens during the project work and as a result of the work, just as taking a hike up a mountain is as important as getting to the final destination of that view over the valley.

The mark of many great projects is that the learners teach what they know and understand through the project.

But, you don’t need to be an expert in order to teach.

The goal here is for students to be documenting, sharing, creating, and teaching while they are learning.

This process enables a constant reflection and dialogue to take place between the learning, the collaborator, the mentor, the teacher, and the audience.

That is what makes true PBL so authentic. It is the connections we can make throughout the learning process that do not happen when sitting in a seat listening to a lecture, or sitting in a seat answering multiple choice questions.

I’d love to hear how you scaffold PBL in your classroom or school. How do you get students started down the PBL path? What activities do you begin with? How do students reflect and share what they have made? Share out in the comments below!

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