George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

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

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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.

Was this useful?
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 comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Hey, thanks Rhonda - What were some of the ways you explicitly taught PBL skills? and btw, what grade level / subject do you teach?

John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Interesting point, Rey - can you say more about how students can "discover" how to do PBL? I think you're right but it may take a very brave / skilled teacher to pull it off without it feeling like it's too time-consuming or "messy" for them to be comfortable. Or maybe the question is, what should we prepare students for and what should we let them discover - and how does a teacher guide that process?

John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Thanks Chris - That is indeed a good article from EdWeek. I could see those knds of activities put in a PBL context, and they;d be very useful for forming the first project teams.

Miss Thomas's picture

Great post John. You have presented many great ideas. I also believe that starting the year with a big project will depend on the level that the students are on, but I personally would prefer to wait until I am more familiar with the students before I create groups and assign a major project. These are just my thoughts. Again, thanks for the informative post.

wendi cole's picture
wendi cole
sixth grade teacher Riverside, California

I really enjoyed reading your article. I have wanted to try project based learning, but have been unsure about how to get my students started. The students at my school come from an upper middle class neighborhood, and unfortunately many are not used to critical thinking or stepping outside of the box. The just want to know what procedure and steps they need to do in order to do the assignment the "right" way. I like the ideas you provided to lay the foundation for students to learn the skills needed for project based learning. It also makes it seem less daunting. I am definitely going to start out small with mini lessons and activities that will build up to my students being able to handle a full-fledged project based learning opportunity. Thank you for the great ideas and jump starting our adventure.

John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Hi Wendi, Glad you found this useful! One more tip - actually a pretty big piece of advice - would be to make sure their first project is REALLY engaging. Pick a topic - or involve students in picking a topic - that will grab their hearts and minds. Then they'll see that they like learning that way, and there will be no going back!

SGP's picture

Your blog hit on so many things that I needed to hear in plain English with samples to help me see the connection to my classroom. You hear people talking the 4C talk but you walk the 4C walk. I have been struggling with how to start this process in my classroom and to be honest, have been putting it on the back burner as I have been feeling overwhelmed with all the other changes in my school this year. The community issues for innovation is great. I teach students that are old enough to affect change in their communities. What a great idea, finding out a need where they live and helping them find a way to act on that need that inspires them personally while they learn content. I also like the alternative ideas as I work in a content team that is trying to incorporate CCSS into our curriculum more regularly. We all do project based learning and the idea of scaffolding the 4C's throughout the year bring them all together at the end is something I can really see my colleagues buying into. Your last thought is something I keep reminding myself and fellow teachers of, "let them struggle, the best lessons in life are the ones we work for."

John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Thanks SGP!
Glad you found this useful - check out our book (PBL for 21st Century Success) too for more info. If you'd like to email me I'd love to hear more about your school -

Elizabeth Huyck's picture
Elizabeth Huyck
Aspiring Teacher / MIT Grad Student

Great post, John!!

As a future educator, I would like to incorporate PBL into my classroom. Knowing exactly when the right time to introduce this type of learning is "depends". This blog article was a great resource for me because it gave a great timeline on how to introduce it into the class and with the students and what skills that must be taught first in order for the PBL to be successful.

Thank you for educating me!!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.