The Simple System For Planning Project Based Learning Experiences

The most successful teaching begins, therefore, with clarity about desired learning outcomes and about the evidence that will show that learning has occurred.

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units

There is something happening across the country and around the world right now. It’s hidden in the planning sessions of colleagues, in the professional development opportunities at schools and conferences, and in the hallways as teachers and administrators talk with each other about their students.

It’s been happening in pockets for so long, that now those groups of teachers and leaders are starting to bring in new teachers and new leaders to build a true culture of learning that looks and feels different.

It’s taking shape as a revolution of sorts (but not some type of education reform) that is beginning to make its way into every school and every classroom.

The textbooks are no longer “good enough”, and the multiple-choice tests are no longer “good enough”, and the lectures are no longer “good enough” for our kids.

We’ve seen what can happen when students are presented with a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome, and a learning experience that is both relevant and meaningful to them as an individual and citizen.

We’ve seen what can happen when students own their learning, have a choice in the process and performance task, and get to choose how they can demonstrate understanding.

Project-based learning (PBL) is no longer relegated to gifted classrooms, honors classes, and exploratory specials. PBL is an active piece of the K-12 learning experience, found in every subject, in every grade level, and in every part of curricula and scope and sequences.

PBL is taking over traditional finals and mid-terms as the performance task. It is showing up as HOW you teach the unit, instead of only an ending project to the unit. PBL is growing because it engages and empowers students to learn experientially and share that learning in new and unique ways that go well beyond the classroom.

Yet, many teachers are asking: How do we plan and implement PBL? How do we “fit it in” our current curriculum? How do we assess it using our current grading guidelines? How do we manage this type of learning?

These are all real concerns and questions that cannot be dismissed. PBL takes time to plan, implement, manage, and assess. Then it takes time to tweak, improve, and highlight.

In my upcoming book, The PBL Playbook, we dive into specific answers to all those questions, and what PBL looks like in each grade level and subject area. However, for this article, we are just going to focus on the planning process of PBL, and how to jump into it quickly when inspiration strikes!

There are many fantastic resources out there for PBL Planning, including the Buck Institute for Education’s website and resources, and Hacking Project Based Learning’s Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy’s site with resources and planning templates. I urge you to check them out and see how they might be of guidance during your PBL journey!

This planning process I am going to share takes five steps to start PBL with your students. It does not go into the management or assessment (as we will talk a bit more about that in upcoming blog posts). Here’s the simple system to plan out your PBL:

1. Start With A Problem/Challenge/Inquiry

Here’s where we begin: A reason for project-based learning.

Many folks will tell you to start with the curriculum, or with the standards, or with an enduring question/understanding; however, the best PBL experiences I’ve been a part of did not start there, but instead started with a reason.

When my students helped design Project: Global Inform it was out of a need to actually DO something about current human rights violations. When Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay created the Flat Classroom Project it was out of a need to have global collaboration while students were in school. When teachers at my district created CentennialX it was out of a need to give students authentic opportunities to solve problems.

Great PBL experience come from a place of need and interest. What problem can students solve? What challenge can be presented as an opportunity to create something of value? What curiosities and inquiry do students already have that can lead to a PBL experience?

As BIE outlines in their definition of PBL:

Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.

Let’s work backward by thinking about the reasons (and the WHY for PBL) that connect to a problem, challenge, or inquiry. This ultimately allows you as a teacher to start from a place of meaning and relevancy before going into any other areas of planning.

2. What Are Students Going to Learn? What Skills Will They Acquire and Master?

The second step of this system is to identify what the students are going to learn during this PBL experience. This is when you look at the curriculum, standards, and skills that align with the content area information that is going to be a part of this process.

While it may seem a bit difficult at first, I want to provide an example.

Let’s say you are teaching 4th grade. Your students are excited to tackle the challenge of getting kids in the cafeteria to actually recycle with regularity! That is a great challenge and problem to tackle, but how does it connect to your standards and curriculum?

Here is where you can unpack the standards and current curriculum that you have. The research to find best practices for recycling connects to many standards. The reading, writing, and viewing also connect to standards. The designing, prototyping and creating of a new recycling can or system connects to standards.

Maybe you can link this PBL experience to a Social Studies unit that talks about the rise of recycling. Maybe it links to a non-fiction part of your Language Arts curriculum. Maybe the scientific process can be used to connect to your Science or STEM curriculum. And of course, the planning and creation can be linked to a piece of the Math curriculum.

Every school and district is different, but if we are going to make the switch to PBL, we must not forget that our focus is on what skills and knowledge students can acquire and master in order to help prepare for their future.

3. What Will Students Make, Create, Design? Who Are They Creating For and Why?

Now that we’ve got the major problem students will be solving, and the connection to curriculum and standards, the focus of our planning moves to what students will be making and who they will be making it for (as part of their authentic audience).

For this, I turn to authors Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy, and how they describe the variety of option for PBL in their book, Hacking PBL:

PBL can unfold in a variety of ways. Teachers should choose a track based on the needs of their students, their readiness as facilitators, and the demands of the curriculum. While it would be unrealistic to detail every possible track, below are the three we find are most common:

  • Product Track (most restrictive) – In a project completed with fourth-grade students, each group was expected to produce a pinball machine. The difference between this experience and a traditional project is that the journey to the product looked different depending on each group’s creative decisions and trials and errors. Students learned about electricity & magnetism and force & motion through their work.
  • Problem Track (medium restrictive) – In this scenario, the project is initiated by presenting students with a problem, or in some cases, the students may identify the problem themselves. Examples may include how to tackle the dilemma of subpar cafeteria food, or students being asked to identify a problem of importance to their age group. Student work would then revolve around identifying the cause of the issue and proposing or enacting a remedy.
  • Open-Ended Track (least restrictive) – Here the project begins with the teacher sharing the High Impact Takeaways / enduring understandings and possibly the Umbrella / essential question with the class. Students then design a project that is truly medium agnostic. In other words, they can demonstrate their knowledge however they choose. For example, a high school physics teacher may share the High Impact Takeaway / enduring understanding: An electric current can produce a magnetic field and a changing magnetic field can produce an electric current. Students, with teacher guidance, then design a project that will support this understanding. Simply researching and sharing information would not be sufficient.

In each track, the students own the problem and can solve it in many different ways. Yet, depending on the class, the age, the subject, and the time constraints a teacher can set up and plan for a PBL experience that will align with the reality of their situation.

4. How Can You Scaffold and Structure the Experience?

In Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning, authors John Larmer, John Mergendoller, and Suzie Boss present a framework for the Gold Standard PBL, that includes Essential Project Design Elements and Project Based Teaching Practices.

BIE Gold Standard

In planning for PBL, the teacher must take an active role in not only looking at these elements but also acknowledging that it is going to be challenging work for the students that needs to be structured and scaffolded along the way.

We’ve already planned for what they are going to solve, how it connects to standards and skills, and what they will be making. But, a major piece in the planning process is putting together a structure that gives students voice and choice, while also holds them accountable with checks for understanding, benchmarks, and opportunities to iterate.

I’m a bit biased towards using the Design Thinking process to structure and scaffold PBL (check out The LAUNCH Cycle for more on this), but Design Thinking is one of many ways we can structure a PBL experience.

You may use the Engineering process, the scientific method, the inquiry cycle, or a process that works specifically within your content and with your students.

The key here is to have this planned out before students get started, and present them with a timeline of the project. You may be flexible throughout the project, but these guidelines will help students plan out their work, and give you spots to check for understanding along the way.

5. When Will Students Self-Assess, Revise, and Reflect?

During Project-Based Learning we can all fall into the trap of trying to race to the finish line at the last moment. The first few PBL experiences with my students went something like this:

I gave my students free reign over when they did their work, with only a final deadline for the completion of the project. Only to find out that most of them procrastinated till the last night, and finished the day before the project was due.

How could I blame them?! You could find me doing the same thing when I was in school and especially when I was getting my Master’s degree in grad school. Procrastination is an easy trap to fall into, and it is also a powerful motivator.

Above we talked about a structure for PBL. But, I would go a step further in your planning and build in specific times for students to self-assess, to reflect on their work, and to revise. Don’t wait till the end of the project to do these extremely important learning tasks.

While we aren’t going to dive into assessment in this post, I’d also say that a big piece of planning out PBL is realizing that we are going to have to assess not just the final product, but also the process, and most importantly the learning.

Planning for these times before the project begins will only help you as the teacher (and help the students) when it comes time to assess their work.

Call to Action

What does your PBL Planning look like? Can you share out in the comments?

The Buck Institute for Education has a fantastic site dedicated to the planning and running of PBL (which you can check out here). Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy have also created a great online resource hub that shares many tools and strategies for PBL (which you can check out here).

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