Project-Based Learning (PBL)

How to Get Projects Off to a Good Start

June 7, 2011

In project-based learning, project kickoff is an exciting day -- and for good reason. This is when PBL shifts from planning to active learning -- the moment when students enter the picture. By planning entry events that fire up their curiosity, you'll engage students' sense of inquiry right from the start.

Today's post focuses on planning effective entry events. My next post will offer ideas for culminating events. In between these important PBL bookends, a world of active learning unfolds. Before you launch the project, you'll want to map out learning goals, consider how students will demonstrate what they have learned, craft a driving question, consider your assessment strategies, and plan for a culminating event. Watch for posts in the PBL series throughout the summer to help you make the most of all phases of projects.

Launch with a Bang

There's more than one way to get a project off the ground, but good entry events share common characteristics. They tend to be memorable, brief, and often dramatic. Novelty helps, too, so that students don't know quite what to expect. Entry events should give students a shared experience that causes them to wonder. By generating questions rather than answering them, entry events fire up the engine of inquiry to carry the project forward.

Combined with the provocative driving question for the project, the entry event gives students a "need to know." During the rest of the project, a variety of learning activities will help them arrive at answers. Their final product or performance will demonstrate what they have learned through the process.

Good entry events also convey a teacher's investment in the project. When teachers put their own creativity into launching a project, they share this unspoken message: We're about to embark on an important learning adventure together. Let's make it into a big deal.

Here are a few ideas to jumpstart your thinking about how to get your project off the ground.

Setting the Scene

At Manor New Tech High School near Austin, Texas, students are unlikely to forget the day they were immersed in an ancient world. The classroom video screen lit up with footage of swords clashing and bare feet running on a grassy battlefield. There were whoops and cries from cheering warriors, but no narrative to explain what was happening. As the screen went dark, a stranger from another century strode into the classroom. He challenged students to find out why his army had been vanquished by superior forces. What was it about the enemy's arrows, their chariot wheels, and other "technology" that allowed them to win on the battlefields of Mesopotamia? How could they improve upon their tools to make sure they were never vanquished again?

Thus began an ambitious, schoolwide project based on the Epic of Gilgamesh. The cross-disciplinary project caused students to apply everything from knowledge of engineering and math to literary theory and digital media production. The entry event -- featuring a video produced by teachers and a guest visit from a classics professor willing to ham it up in costume -- was a small but important piece intended to get the project off to a rollicking start. Watch the video of the Gilgamesh-based entry event:

At Manor New Tech, an all-PBL high school that emphasizes STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), teachers often make short video trailers to launch projects. "Our teachers are creative, and they kind of compete to out-do each other," says Principal Steve Zipkes. That means teachers are making effective use of the same digital tools that they expect students to use in their projects. By going a little over the top with entry events, they're getting students engaged in projects that have serious learning goals.

You can see more video productions by Manor New Tech students and teachers at the school's YouTube channel. At last count, the collection included more than 800 videos.

More Visual Prompts

Not every teacher has the time or technical skills to produce an original video trailer. Historical footage, film clips, or still images can take students to another time or place, giving students context that sets the stage for a project.

To see how still images can also be used to good effect to inspire inquiry, take a look at the visual prompts shared by Dan Meyer on his blog, Dy/Dan. A former math teacher, he is the creator of a popular blog series called "What Can You Do With This?" His visuals alone are worth a visit, but be sure to check out the rich discussions in the comments.

Guest Speakers

"About one year ago, a determined woman walked through the doors of King Middle School with her head held high. Claudette Colvin, a woman who refused to give up her seat to a white woman when she was young, visited our school to share her memories with us and her biographer." That's how a middle-school student from Maine remembers the start of an engrossing project on the Civil Rights Movement.

During the launch event, students learned about sit-ins, heard the music of the time, and experienced how it might feel to be segregated. A project portfolio is available on the Expeditionary Learning site.

Guest speakers can help get a project started by sharing their experience or expertise with students. Be on the lookout for speakers who have compelling personal stories to share, or who convey a contagious passion for their subject.

Field Research

Another way to come at a project is by having students engage in field research. To start a local history project, for instance, you might send students out to photograph landmarks that they wonder about. A social studies project might begin with a survey about a controversial issue. Discussions about what students discover through their own initial research can set the stage for more in-depth inquiry projects.

A good entry event by itself doesn't guarantee a high-quality project, of course. It's just one day in the life of the project, and plenty of active learning and teacher facilitation will need to follow. But done right, it's time well spent.

Watch for future posts that address the other key elements of project-based learning. Meanwhile, please share your ideas for engaging entry events. What have you tried? How have students responded?

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