What to Do When a Project Fails
When project-based learning doesn’t work out as planned, students can still master content—and teachers can learn something too.
“Failure is success in progress.” —Albert Einstein
At the outset of a project, enthusiasm and idealism are high. As educators, we approach our project-based learning (PBL) with an eye toward success, but what happens when things don’t turn out as planned?
My co-teacher and I launched a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) video project on World War I and World War II in our integrated American history and English language arts class. The project married the concept of CYOA books with videos where viewers choose what to do next. Rather than have each group make its own video, we decided to have our whole classes divide up the tasks to create one giant adventure.
Students were placed in different teams based on self-identified skills, and roles included writers, actors, directors, artists for props, lighting and camera operators, and video editors. Each class created a storyboard on a whiteboard wall, plotting all of the paths and choices like a sideways tree. Groups of students began writing scripts for each scene, including details of the setting and props.
The students did an excellent job of distributing roles and diagramming the big-picture storyboard, but they struggled with the rest of the project. Ultimately, we were unable to finish the videos, but the challenges gave us new insights on how to successfully implement this type of project in the future.
The project was our first attempt at having student groups work together on a single final product. When it came time to film, we had students making props and shooting scenes all over campus, indoors and outdoors. The organization and management of a project of this complexity and scale were new for us.
Brain research supports the idea of failing forward and a growth mindset. If we want students to be fearless and think outside the box in class, we need to model that behavior as teachers. Trying this new project without knowing for sure whether or not it would work demonstrated the way we want students to attack problems.
Scaffold to Empower
Although it is necessary to scaffold lessons for students who require support, it’s important that scaffolding serve as a temporary framework while a building is being constructed. Scaffolding should be removed as students gain confidence and skills.
During the CYOA project, my co-teacher and I thought we were not organized enough. Our mistake was not about our disorganization. Instead, it was that we did not provide students with the tools to organize themselves. When teachers coordinate everything in class, they steal the opportunity to lead from students.
Instead of preparing every aspect of a project, we should teach students how to use tools like a student scrum board (an example is included here, or you can try this Trello template) to manage themselves. Project management is one of the most important skills that students can learn through PBL, but that happens only if they have the opportunity.
Reflection is key to deeper learning. In reflecting on our CYOA project, we realized that our biggest mistake was underestimating the technology part of the project and not devising a clear process for getting footage from the cameras to the video editors. We also needed to talk more directly about conflict resolution among the groups.
In PBL, the teacher and the students should be reflecting both during and after a project. When a project is not working, refrain from rescuing your students. Instead, have them work through their difficulties. Provide questions related to their struggles and ask them to journal about the experience.
For example, asking, “What is preventing my group from being successful right now?” and “How can we fix this challenge?” can provide an opportunity for reflection. Students can meet in their groups and discuss issues and potential solutions.
Teachers should assess and provide feedback throughout the PBL project—not just at the end.
Even though our final product never materialized, students still mastered the required content of World War I and World War II because we checked their progress along the way. They met benchmarks, including the storyboard and script writing, that demonstrated their content mastery.
Sometimes, assessing content standards in the final product feels forced, especially if students are applying historical concepts to modern-day issues. Giving additional writing assignments or tests can help measure learning.
Trust the process. Not everything in PBL will go smoothly. Listen with empathy to students and teach them how to negotiate differences with each other. Staying the course with a project yields long-term benefits.
Although I was disappointed that students never completed their videos, there was a silver lining. At the end of the year, we launched another PBL unit, about water, in all of their classes. This time, students owned the whole PBL process. During final reflection, one of the student leaders told me, “Because we failed on the CYOA video, we learned how to work together and succeed on the water project.”
Good teaching doesn’t mean that everything that happens in class turns out the way we expect. Students develop skills gradually over the course of a class. Using setbacks in projects as learning tools demonstrates for students how challenges can be turned into opportunities.