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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Start the Year with a Project . . . or Wait?

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Over the summer, you've spent some time planning what you think will be a great project for the beginning of the school year. You're eager to launch it on Day Two, after you've introduced yourself to your students on Day One. Or should you wait until, say, Week Two, Three, or even later to start the project?

The answer is: it depends.

It may be just fine to start the year with a project if your students already know what it means to work PBL-style. If your school has a robust project-based program, or at least the teachers your students had last year did a lot of PBL, starting your class with a project sends a message to students: let's get right to it, this is how we learn here. It engages them actively right away with no time to think, "OK, here I am, back in boring old school."

But what if your students are not very experienced with PBL? Are they able to work in teams, conduct inquiry, and make a presentation to an audience? Have they ever been asked to think about an open-ended question or use problem-solving strategies? Have they ever had to complete a complex task over an extended period of time, one that involved planning, organization, and processes for critique and revision? Do they know how to use the Internet or the library to find answers to their questions? Do they know what a rubric is? Can they handle the technology they'll need, or will they drag out the project by spending days and days figuring out how to produce those slick videos you envisioned?

If the answer to these questions is "no" or "I'm not sure," then it might be good to lay a foundation first, and build students' skills before beginning project work. Taking the time to do this will pay off by making your first project go much more smoothly.

Laying the Foundation

You could approach the foundation-laying job in a variety of ways. For example, you could have students practice what they'll need for PBL in a series of discreet lessons. On one day (or two or three), they learn about Internet research; over the next few days, they learn how to work in teams; next week they learn processes for problem solving and for giving and receiving critical feedback on their work. Then they might learn how to use a certain technology, speak in public, and organize a presentation. Or, instead of separate lessons, you could have students experience one or more "mini-projects" which emphasize various PBL competencies and habits of mind and work.

Important Reminder: When you do these PBL skill-building lessons or mini-projects, make sure their focus is also on important content and academic skills drawn from your standards. Create PBL practice opportunities that also teach subject-area facts, terminology, concepts, skills, and processes.

Bringing in the "4C's"

Here are some tips for preparing students for the "4C's" competencies they'll need for PBL, drawn from the Buck Institute for Education's PBL Toolkit series of how-to books:

Critical Thinking:

  • Have students do activities that involve problem solving, such as brain teasers, puzzles or a construction task (maybe building a tower of straws or a spaghetti bridge). Debrief the ways in which they used critical thinking.
  • Give students an open-ended task such as thinking of various endings for a story, recommending what to do in a case study scenario, or proposing solutions to a problem. Debrief the process they used and how it might be improved.
  • Help students understand what critical thinking means by asking them to define it in their own words. Have them create posters for the classroom wall to remind them how to ask good questions, follow a problem-solving process, or analyze a source of information.


  • Allow students to practice teamwork skills in low-stakes activities such as games, physical activities, and challenges to build or make something.
  • Have students practice project management skills in short activities where they learn how to play various roles, use decision-making processes, divide tasks among the team, write a team contract, and set a schedule.
  • Help students understand what collaboration means by asking them to define it in their own words. Have them create posters for the classroom wall to remind them how to work well in teams.


  • Teach students how to listen actively, take notes, ask questions, and contact experts or people in the community and online.
  • Have students learn and practice the skills of speaking in public, organizing a presentation, and fielding questions from an audience.
  • Help students understand what an effective presentation is by watching videos of presentations or speeches and analyzing them with a rubric, or ask students to develop a set of criteria.

Creativity and Innovation:

  • Teach students how to brainstorm effectively by having them practice in fun challenges such as "How many improvements could you think of for a doghouse?" or "What ideas can you come up with for new smartphone app that gets people to think creatively?"
  • Have students practice divergent thinking by describing an issue in the community and asking them to suggest all the people who could be affected by it, or give students a "big idea" question and ask them to think of all the possible answers to it. ("What is worth fighting for?" or "What is a healthy community?")

An Alternative

As an alternative to the "lay a foundation before the first project" approach, some teachers instead plan a series of projects to intentionally build various skills over time. For example, one project might emphasize how to work in teams, the next might focus explicitly on critical thinking, the next might teach students to use a 3D printer, and so on. This approach requires some careful coordinated planning, however. Some schools consciously scaffold specific PBL skills by grade level or semester. For example, all sixth graders might work on information gathering in first-quarter projects, on following a process for innovation in second-quarter projects, and on making multimedia presentations in third-quarter projects. Fourth-quarter projects could ask students to put it all together.

One Last Thought

While you're building students' skills for working in a PBL environment, don't forget to build the right classroom culture. Do lots of team-building activities so that students feel comfortable with and supportive of each other. Get to know your students so that you can place them in effective project teams and anticipate what scaffolding they're going to need. Let students know that you expect them to work independently from the teacher to some extent. Let them know that it's OK to not know the "right answer" to an open-ended question, OK to propose out-of-the-box questions and ideas, and OK to fail as part of the process of innovation. Let them know you're excited about PBL and that, while you expect much of them, you'll be right alongside them on the journey.

Back to School Blog Series
Back to school tips and strategies to help you rock the new year!

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Chris Fancher's picture

Great post. There was a post in EdWeek: http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2012/06/27/tln_merz.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-TW last year that had a great first week plan. It allowed the teacher to learn their students while getting them used to forming groups and getting started on a collaborative exercise upon entering the classroom.
We so often get caught up in diving into the curriculum and not diving into the skills needed in a collaborative and reflective environment. And we also forget to foster the student-centered nature of PBL. We need to know our students and they need to know us. Then we will be truly collaborative.

slash's picture

Thanks for the great article. I work at a school where students are used to working with this approach. The benefits are tremendous!

Todd Sentell's picture
Todd Sentell
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

To begin the school year I wanted to have them make a list of the reasons why we study history. I just really didn't get satisfied with the answers I got last week so here we go again. One of the obvious reasons is that history is interesting. The history of people, places, things, and events. Nobody ever guesses that the study of history is interesting.

Anyhow, so I tell them you don't have to agree with him but is Lester Maddox interesting. He's interesting. I swear he was. Lester was a real mischievous and skinny old Georgia governor who certainly could ride a bicycle backwards and wave a pistol around at a poor old dude who just wanted some soul food in his restaurant and he was good at whipping around that ol' axe handle thing while his sister banged on the piano while his customers slurped down green beans, but people all over the world continue to be interested in him. One of the other reasons about how it gets interesting--studying history--is to compare how we do things now to how we did things a long time ago. For some freaky reason I said do women have babies now the way they did a couple of hundred years ago?

They screamed ... No way!

Nowadays, I said, if a mom's in trouble, and even the baby, the doctor would probably perform a cesarean section.

Petal screamed that she was born by cesarean section! Oh, my God!

Then Hap said he was, too!

And then that Tempest said she was, too, by cesarean section, and that they ought to form a club!

Then Petal said if she hadn't been born by cesarean section then both her and her mother would be dead and she wouldn't be sitting right here in Georgia History class!

I took a deep breath and changed the heck out of the subject. I can just imagine them running and screaming down the hall to Lurlene's office and pleading and screaming with her to let them form a junior high school cesarean section club.


Rey Carr's picture

This article makes a good case for the various elements that are involved in PBL. And while the author does refer to variations, I'm not sure that "discovering" how to do effective project based learning is included. Students can learn just as much from mistakes, misdirection and goal-lessness, and maybe they may even strengthen their commitment to and ability to engage in project-based learning if they have less instruction and more facilitation of PBL.

Rhonda Jessen's picture
Rhonda Jessen
Curriculum Manager, Career and Technology Foundations, Alberta Education

Great post John, it gives teachers who are new to project-based learning specific ways to set their classes up for success. The ideas would work for teachers introducing PBL in individual classrooms or small groups, or to a whole grade or school.

I jumped into my first PBL project without ensuring my students had the skills they needed and it didn't go very well. The next time I laid a foundation by explicitly teaching skills needed for PBL; my students were more successful and everything went more smoothly.

Thanks for the great resources for PBL teachers on the Buck Institute website: http://www.bie.org and the reminder to focus on the curriculum when introducing PBL. Projects that introduce PBL skills aren't a waste of time when they address outcomes, competencies or skills that students need to know.

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