What Should Be the Teacher’s Role During Project-Based Learning?

Teaching is not always easy.

And learning can be a struggle for many of our students.

As educators, we are called to this back and forth process of teaching and learning. We push and challenge, and then support and guide. It’s easy to get lost in the grind. It’s why so many teachers get burnt out, and why so many students complain about school.

However, if we think about each school year as a journey — one that will not only come to an end, but also lead to new journeys — then our mindset changes from dealing with the grind to crafting the best story possible. When talking to students at the beginning of the year (or throughout the course) make sure they understand the journey you are about to take, because people understand complicated concepts when presented in story format:

If you want people to understand and identify with a complicated concept, tell a story about it.

Telling a story often creates a “clicking experience” in a person’s brain allowing them to suddenly understand what someone else is trying to say. As such, those who can tell good stories will create faster, stronger connections with others. – Donald Miller

The Guide In Our Students’ Story

I recently read Donald Miller’s eBook, “How to Tell a Story”. It was a quick read, but one that caught me a bit off guard. Sometimes we take stories for granted or think that they are “just for kids”; but as adults, we shape our lives through stories. Each day has a beginning, middle, and end. Each life situation, each job, and each year is shaped in much the same way.

The same goes for your class and the school year. Miller gives a simple story structure that is used in thousands of books, movies, and in our own lives. Let’s look at how this applies to your class:

The character in your class story could be an individual student or the entire class. Once you’ve defined the character, the next step is understanding what the problem is/was.

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My Class Story

I’ve written a lot about the “20% Project” in my class a few years ago. That class story would looks like this:

The character (my students) had a problem (they were solely focused on what grade they received and not the learning experience). They met a guide (me) who gave them a plan (the 20% Project) and called them to action (learn what you want and what you are passionate about…not because I’m giving you a grade). That ended in a success (happy ending when the presentations came through with amazing work that was not tied to grades).

Inside of this class story would be many individual stories. One such story could look like this:

The character (a girl in my class) had a problem (she was afraid to share her own music with the world). She met a guide (a mentor we found through the project) who gave her a plan (you don’t need to perform in front of people at first) and called her to action (record yourself and put it up online anonymously at first…and write about it), that ended in a success(she received positive feedback online and eventually added her name and more songs).

As a teacher, we are often the guide who calls the character (class or student) to action. However, we can also sometimes point the character to a different guide (it doesn’t always have to be us) who may be able to help better for various circumstances.

The point is to view your class and each individual student as a story waiting to happen…

Misconceptions About Being the Guide

In the seven years since diving head first into Project-Based Learning (PBL),  I’ve connected with amazing educators doing the same type of project-based learning and/or inquiry-based learning (whether it be Genius Hour, 20% Time, or any other name).

It’s one of the most empowering types of learning that can happen in (or out) of the classroom, and the real kicker is that we tend to follow this “inquiry-based” learning path in many other areas/aspects of our life.

Yet, when I started down this path of PBL and Genius Hour I had it all wrong. I believed that I would be “helping” students by guiding them and giving them some advice here or there. I saw it as more of a call and response type of guiding where I had all the answers (or at least most of them) and could help in times of need.

Boy, was I wrong.

Since going through those first few PBL experiences, I’ve had my perspective and bias towards teaching and learning changed many times. When I have conversations with other educators about moving towards PBL or Genius Hour, I hear many of the same questions I had when I started.

Here’s my best effort at sharing what I learned along the way.


People often believe PBL and Genius Hour is a response to teacher-directed learning…


Some believe that PBL and Genius Hour is all about kicking back and letting the students do the driving…


But it’s more like putting them in the driver’s seat while you are still in the car…


Many focus on the all the possible issues that might arise from giving students choice…


Or worry about how much time they’ll spend “policing” students who have time on their hands… 


Or think it’s time to “gamify” learning (it’s not)…


PBL and Genius Hour is definitely student-driven learning, but we can’t be backseat drivers during this experience…

And we can’t spend our time in the classroom judging what students are learning and making…


Instead, we are on this journey together. The student is the hero, and the teacher is the guide ON THE RIDE…


Reflecting along the way on failures, successes, and lessons learned…


So that each student can navigate their own way, and create their own learning path, with us by their side (and along for the ride) on the journey…


And watch the entire class find their own path, own goals, and own failures and accomplishments along the way.

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That is what PBL and Genius Hour are all about.

Here’s the piece that many teachers (me included) often miss.

Sometimes the main character in the story isn’t the students. Sometimes that main character is the teacher.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone through a school year and had my students guide me and call me to action. In fact, the best stories are when I’m joining them on the adventure. When we are embarking together and learning by each other’s side. We may be learning different lessons along the way, but the journey is shared.

There is a popular phrase in education that teachers must be a “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage”. The thought is that we should be facilitating the learning from the side instead of preaching to students on what they should learn.

If we look at our students’ learning stories as shared journeys that we take an active role in, then we are more than a guide on the side.

We are guides on the ride.

We are active participants in this adventure, and learn just as much as our students do throughout the process.

Guide on the RIDEWhen students are empowered to craft their own learning stories and go on shared learning journeys, they’ll often take the chance to dramatically impact their own life (and the lives of others) through what they make, create, design, and explore.

Call to Action

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Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Looks so awesome..Finally some useful teaching material!

  • Shelley Stedman says:

    As a mentor librarian in the Young Inventors Project https://news.syr.edu/2015/09/ischool-faculty-receive-grant-for-promoting-childrens-creative-thinking-71622/
    and a teacher of a PBL “invention or innovation unit” for sixth graders, “joining students on their learning journeys” enabled me to learn something with and about my students every day. I think of it as “hard fun” and I heartily endorse PBL – even when it gets messy! Many of my students were surprised by their ability to create a prototype or actually achieve a successful solution to a problem they selected. However, because project time is often limited by academic schedules (course length, session length and number of class sessions) accepting “unsuccessful” student outcomes sometimes involves a huge change in mind-set for students, parents and administrators. The learning journey does not end at the end of the term, or the school year.
    I firmly believe that perceptions about the value of the experience increase over time as we reflect and make connections and extrapolate our learning to other experiences throughout our life. Unfortunately, in the classroom, short term expectations and evaluations may derail the interpretation of the learning and the value of these experiences before they are fully realized by individual students and/or constituent groups and data-based decision making may require abandonment of these learning opportunities for students.

  • Sumeya Zein Alaabideen says:

    For me as an English Language teacher, this is a way out to help my students. In Sudan, English is considered as a foreign language. Above all, most if not all teachers follow the translation methods to motivate their students and keep the communication channel open. As a result, no learning takes place. Please support me with all what is available. I’m sending my gratefulness.

  • Julie Chankow says:

    Hi AJ,
    Thanks for sharing your PBL experience with us. Sometimes it is difficult for teachers to let go especially when there is a curriculum to follow. But you know what, I have let go and let my students have more freedom and choice in their learning process. The results blow my mind and still are on track. True we don’t cover the whole lot but we have more depth in our learning. My students are making decisions and learning how to correct their mistakes. These are life lessons!

  • I wonder what your stance is on standards-based grading as it relates to PBL? Can the two coexist? We’ve built a student performance platform that lends itself well to the types of shifts you’re thinking of in grading practices. Here’s a good example of our standards-based report cards – https://otus.com/have-report-cards-driven-a-wedge-between-parents-and-standards-based-grading/

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