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Getting Started With Project-Based Learning (Hint: Don't Go Crazy)

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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Before the start of the school year, many of us want to use the remaining weeks of summer to learn some new skills -- such as project-based learning (PBL). One of the things we stress for new PBL practitioners is, as I say, "don't go crazy." It's easy to go "too big" when you first start PBL. I have heard from many teachers new to PBL that a large, eight-week integrated project was a mistake. So how do you start PBL in ways that will ensure your success as a learner and teacher? Here are a few tips to consider.

Start Small

As I said, "Don't go crazy!" Instead of targeting a million standards, focus on a few power standards. Concentrate the learning on one subject rather than multiple disciplines. PBL emphasizes in-depth inquiry over coverage. Leverage this principle in designing your first PBL project. Make sure that project won't take more than two to three weeks. Instead of doing real-life fieldwork, consider having the learning occur in the classroom. Ensure authenticity and public audience, but keep it focused.

Plan Now

One of the challenges of PBL, but also one of the joys, is the planning process. In PBL, you plan upfront. By using the backwards design process, you can effectively map out a project that's ready to go in the classroom. Once you plan it, you're free to differentiate instruction and meet the immediate needs of your students rather than being in permanent crisis-mode trying to figure what will happen tomorrow.

Limited Technology

We love technology, but sometimes we get too "tech happy." When first doing PBL, you should focus on mastering the design and implementation process; technology is another layer to the work that can complicate things. If you plan on using technology, stay limited in your choice. As you get begin to master PBL as a teacher, you can then use technology to manage the process. But as a PBL beginner, focus on the PBL process itself.

Know the Difference Between PBL and Projects

This is the big one! I can't stress this enough! With PBL, the project itself is the learning, not the "dessert" at the end. If you are doing projects in the classroom, you may or may not be doing PBL. In fact, many teachers think they are doing PBL, but are actually doing projects. Again, in PBL you are teaching through the project, not teaching and then doing the project. If you want a quick way to see if you're meeting the essential elements of PBL, I highly recommend the Buck Institute for Education's PBL Project Checklist. It helps to make sure that you are focusing on aspects such as inquiry, voice and choice, and significant content.

We are all learners, and when we start something new, we start small. We limit our focus to help us master the bigger thing step by step. Through mastery of manageable goals, you can be well on your way to becoming an advanced PBL practitioner. Since you are learning a new process, your students are learning one as well. They need a manageable experience just as you do! Start your own learning and planning process now in these last remaining weeks of summer so that you have time to unpack what PBL can mean for your teaching, and implement it in a manageable way for you and your students.

Photo credit: wwworks via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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James Lotter's picture
James Lotter
high school English, Academy of Environmental and Social Policy

I am wondering if there are good online sources for examples of pbl lesson plans. We are diving into pbl this year and the hardest thing to communicate to co-workers is that this is about planning and methodology, not just projects. It would really help me communicate this if some daily lessons and start-to-finish planning examples were available. Anyone?

"Professor" Paul GTO Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul GTO Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University & Pre-AP Science Instructor

My opinion is many teachers confuse these two methods of content delivery. With PBL, you have to make sure those students are taking their finished product outside of their classmates and teacher. I have seen many teachers believe they are doing PBL when all they are doing is finishing a project and presenting it to the class. That is not PBL!!! I have PBL Activities in my Environmental Stewardship Lecture and the 3R's Lecture. After they listen to my lecture and do the Project Based Learning Activity, they are motivated to make decisions around their learning and engage themselves in monitoring the flow of aluminum cans, plastic bottles, white paper, and other materials in the school. Then they make decisions about making a profit from the sale of aluminum cans and plastic bottles. Then they approach the school and school district to monitor the amount of energy they were using, then they approach the school about building a botanical garden and planting shade trees...I can go on and learn more, visit my site at and listen to lesson two on Recycle, Reduce, Reuse and lesson three on Environmental Stewardship and Scientific Analysis.

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Middle school teacher

This is in response to James Lotter's question about pbl planning: examples abound right here on Edutopia, and some of the most helpful (imo) are contained in the feature on King Middle School. This article takes you through the planning process for a project: You are right, however, to try to communicate that pbl is a process, not a product. It is work that is guided by teachers but created by students, so it's never going to be as simple as following someone else's premade plan. You set up structures and expectations, within which the students (or student teams) have the freedom to inquire, explore, and iterate.

Thomas Davenport's picture
Thomas Davenport
Middle School Technology Teacher

Yep, this behemoth was based on a model that said 12-15 hours of instruction time. It's already at 15, and we're about half-way there. I will say, it has been fun, and I am seeing a gleam in the students' eyes. Our project is about what's happening on our campus--a new building is being built this year--and, in my technology class, I'm awaking the students to greater awareness of their immediate surroundings by having them create a media project--video, game, animation, fashion statement--that persuades people to share their viewpoint about whether the sacrifice to our ecology represented by our construction site is worth the value the building will have for our school's future.

It's finally starting to bear fruit as all the prep is drawing to a close and I'm seeing them interact with stakeholders and watching them be amazed by some discoveries--or maybe their just finally understanding what their mad-scientist of a technology teacher has been ranting about for the last three weeks. As you can tell from this comment, I could use a little work on being concise in my explanations!

Felicia's picture
Biology teacher, Appomattox, VA.

Flipped classrooms and Project based learning. I am all for working towards these goals. Of course, in the middle of a school year is a little overwhelming to try to do. I am looking to network with others that can assist and point me in the right direction of working towards these goals. I am new to this but excited. I do have concerns. One is that i need to make sure that my students are mastering the material in preparation for the End of Course test (our state Standard of Learning ). I would be grateful for any help. I can e-mail, Skype, work with others, etc. My school email: I look forward to this exciting challenge.

LeTempt's picture
MIT Student

As a student studying PBL and Technology in Education it does seem overwhelming. I would like to incorporate both in my future classroom. PBL seems like a great way to really deepen the level of learning. I would like to see more examples of lesson plans for elementary PBL. Thank you for the words of caution.

Katherine Xiao's picture
Katherine Xiao
Social Media Marketing Intern at @Edutopia

The concept of project-based learning reminds me of a Chinese proverb that I really like:

"Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand."

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