Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Start the Year with a Project . . . or Wait?

August 15, 2013
Photo credit: Veer

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.

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Curriculum Planning
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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