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Perfecting with Practice: Project-Based Teaching

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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In project learning (PL), plans that look spectacular on paper can go awry when students enter the picture. During the implementation phase, students may decide to head in directions their teacher never anticipated.

Tensions can build if teams don't understand what it means to collaborate or share responsibility for project success. Creative problem solving can start to feel like classroom chaos. This is when the art of project-based teaching makes all the difference.

What if you're new to teaching with the project approach? Do you have to learn everything the hard way?

Fortunately, veteran PL teachers are only too happy to share their wisdom. For the past several weeks, I've had the pleasure of listening to educators talk about the nitty-gritty of projects. Colleague Jane Krauss and I just wrapped up hosting a series of webinars. (If you are interested, the discussion continues here.)

Here are just a few gems from this conversation, along with links to projects that will give you some new ideas to try with your students.

Get Minds Inquiring

Inquiry is at the heart of project learning, and PL veterans are deliberate about sparking student curiosity before a project actually begins. Some teachers leave clues in plain sight, encouraging students to do preliminary detective work that will fire up their curiosity. Others use opinion polls to ignite class discussions. Kevin Gant from the New Tech Network offers this sample question to lead into a physics project: "What's the better car: Dodge Viper or Shelby Cobra?" A class survey takes just a few minutes, Gant says, but, "time spent getting the students riled up about an issue is golden."

Lay a Foundation

The project approach challenges students to think for themselves, conduct research, solve authentic problems, meet deadlines, and manage much of their own learning. Experienced teachers don't take these skills for granted. They invest time to introduce students to the project process. Terry Smith from Hannibal, Missouri, uses the popular Monster Project to "get students into project mode" by negotiating decision making in small teams.

Before Sue Boudreau, teaching in Orinda, California, unleashes students on a complex project, she starts with a low-risk activity to teach process skills. She might ask students to think about all the steps associated with a familiar task, such as getting a meal ready for dinner guests. Then she has them work backwards from the dinner bell to figure out the project flow. Currently, Boudreau's middle school students are using their project skills to take on real-world science challenges through the Take Action Project.

Look to the Discipline for Cues

Where are the boundaries when students are pursuing open-ended questions? Neil Stephenson from Calgary, Alberta, suggests looking to the discipline you're teaching to help students focus their efforts. "I'm trying to find places where I can bring the reality of the discipline into the classroom. What does it mean for kids to become mathematicians and not just teach them math? What does it mean to teach them to do science and not learn about science? There's a subtle but powerful shift there," he suggests, "and the right way to teach comes out of the disciplines." Stephenson's award-winning Cigar Box Project demonstrates what happens "when kids actually become historians and interpret events from the past."

Develop Confidence

Project learning typically culminates with students sharing the results of their effort, often at a public event. How do you build students' presentation skills, as well as the confidence to exercise their voice? Anthony Armstrong, teaching in Tiburon, Calif., goes about this deliberately. He challenges his eighth graders with an activity he calls the "30-second blowhard." They discover that staying on topic for half a minute can be a challenge, especially when you're expected to make a cogent argument. And that's not all.

Armstrong asks each student to summarize the key points made by the previous speaker. That builds listening skills. Gradually, as students gain confidence and competence, the 30-second challenge expands to a couple minutes.

Build Some Buzz

When PL really takes hold, the benefits can extend in all sorts of unexpected directions. We call this the project spiral. Where can spirals go? Imagine a project that brings in collaborators from other schools -- or other countries. Picture community members connecting with students to solve real-world challenges. Think about the advantages when PL teachers form virtual communities to continue fine-tuning their practice.

These benefits won't happen in a vacuum, however. George Mayo from Silver Spring, Maryland, reminds us of the value of building buzz by getting student projects out into the world. He's an advocate of blogs as a tool for getting students to publicly reflect on their learning and invite reactions. Mayo also organizes a project called the Longfellow Ten, in which students from across the country create "absurd stop-motion films" to illustrate academic concepts. In his own community, Mayo organizes an annual film festival where students showcase their best filmmaking efforts -- and evidence of their expanding visual literacy -- with family and friends.

Establish the Right Context

Connie Weber teaches at an independent school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that removes many of the typical barriers to the project approach. She enjoys small class sizes, gifted students, strong parental support, and even an on-campus nature center. But when we asked her about the key conditions for project success, she described a learning environment that could be replicated almost anywhere -- with the right care and attention. What's essential, she says, "is establishing the learning atmosphere, how the class feels." Instead of generating rules with her students, she invites them to "generate tendencies, [and] positive ways to be together."

Students warm right up to this request. Weber explains, "They suggest that they want each other to be nice, honest, respectful, patient; to have integrity and perseverance; to be safe to make mistakes and safe to share their views." She adds one more quality to the list: "It's important to play."

What does this feel like in practice? At the start of a project, Weber describes this moment:

"For the teacher, there's this giant letting go. Now, that requires some effort. I can see it in my mind -- it's me walking away, turning my back, going somewhere else, not allowing myself to hover. It's me communicating, 'I'm at your service,' and, 'May the force be with you.' It's me utterly and totally handing over the reins, come what may. The project is theirs."

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These are just a few of the insights shared during several weeks of inspiring conversations. And the good talk continues. Links to webinar recordings are posted in Classroom 2.0.

Thanks to Project Foundry for hosting this series, and to LearnCentral for providing the virtual meeting room through the site, Elluminate. Most of all, thanks to all the excellent teachers who have so generously shared their wisdom.

If you've been teaching with projects for a while, how have you fine-tuned your approach? If you're new to PL, what advice are you searching for? Please share your ideas -- and keep this conversation going.

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Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Comments (46) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Linda Martin's picture
Linda Martin
Advanced Academics Resource Teacher from Reston, VA

You might want to look into the JASON Project science curriculum. There are excellent online resources to use (for free!) and the content is amazing. Your students will be introduced to a scientist and the work they are currently doing in the field. There are videos, an online journal, audio excerpts, and labs that help student understand science concepts. Look it up at JASON

Nate Wharton's picture

Great and simplistic explanation of beginning project based learning. I really like the idea of project based learning and hope to allow it to consume a larger part of my curriculum. One of the biggest things I notice is the passion and interest the students generate for the topic they are researching/completing. It seems to remove the walls of the school and allows students to feel as though they are engaged in a "real world" activity.

Nate Wharton's picture

Great and simplistic explanation of beginning project based learning. I really like the idea of project based learning and hope to allow it to consume a larger part of my curriculum. One of the biggest things I notice is the passion and interest the students generate for the topic they are researching/completing. It seems to remove the walls of the school and allows students to feel as though they are engaged in a "real world" activity.

Tim McNamara's picture

We are beginning to implement large scale PBLs in our school this year and your comments and links have been helpful. Knowing that the best laid plans can quickly change and that we need to be flexible with our directions is helpful. Please let me know if you have a webinar series similar to this one in the future.

James Robinson's picture
James Robinson
Teach at a private school. Multi grades 1st-12th. Mostly Language/Arts . TX

I have just been informed that I will have SP-ED Lifeskills class this year. The students are from 1st-5th grade. The principal wants me to use only "interactive Projects". Please send me ideas/suggestions, lesson plans-to help me get started.
James Robinson
Northside Preparatory School
PO Box 52833
Houston, Texas 77052

Jane Krauss's picture
Jane Krauss
Teacher, curriculum and program developer, author, PBL facilitator, techie

[quote]I no longer have the honor of working with that principal he finally retired at 75 and I move to ABQ. The move did bring on new adventures and the opportunity to study the TIMMS study. If you can find the video on that is is wonderful. The Japanese teachers meet as a department and plan the lessons. We call it lesson study in this country and I teach tomorrow for my 3rd leson study. We meet as a department pick a topic and plan the lessons together. 6heads are better than one and I get to share with them my hands on activities in the classroom. I have learned to love Knex circus. We do time and distance, circumference, diameter, ratio, area, and so much more. My students have to joy of building on Fridays for the next weeks lessons. They have done math no one ever thought they could as I teach strictly special needs students now. I don't know what you teach but I love to share the programs and brain storm ideas on how to teach the boring stuff in a new fun way. I am actually doing my doctorate on differentiated instruction in a standards based classroom. There in for me lies the joy of teaching.

Pat the lesson study model from TIMMS is fabulous and I've seen it become an approach professional learning communities take for action research toward better instruction. The book that lines it out the best (and is a touch stone for me) is James Stigler's
The Teaching Gap.

Hudson Don's picture
Hudson Don
Prematurely retired high school English teacher because of blindness (legal

I don't know about" web-based" Project Learning specifically, but I do know of a book that is entirely about project based learning. The title is "20 Teachers" by Ken Macrorie.
Educators at all levels are in a rush to find the newest, latest, cutting-edge materials or ideas. I fear we forget about some ground-breaking insights into learning from the past that are not past their prime. Before Project Based Learning was viable educational terminology, Ken Macrorie (Western Michigan University) found twenty extraordinary teachers who were doing unique, remarkable things with extraordinary results and collected their stories in a book (20Teachers).Ken didn't call these teachers Project Based Teachers but that is what they were. He called them literacy based teachers and that is also what they were.
These teachers ranged from Special Education Teachers,to Speech Therapists, to College AstroPhysics professors, to high school shop teachers. What they all have in common is literate behavior, and, what we'd call today Project Based Learning.
I'd recommend going back in time a little bit to see what was done to get us to where we are today. The common denominator in Project Based Learning and in "20 Teachers" is literate behavior. That means to learn mathematics we need to make our students mathematicians jut like we make them musicians, artists, dancers, athletes, and -hopefully- citizens.
In its day, "20 Teachers" was an original, tradition threatening story. Today it's not as original but its still threatening. NCLB and Race to the Top talk the talk but don't walk the walk. Project Based Learning does both. It's more than worth it to remember some of the history of PBL. And "20 Teachers" should stimulate a lot of ideas.
For what it's worth, I like the story of the AstroPhysics professor that started his students on a NASA project knowing that they could not finish the project before the next semester started and a whole new set of students would come in and take over. Something to remember, reinventing the wheel is vital to literate behavior and problem solving.

Jeff d.'s picture

I am so excited to have found this blog with all of the valuable information posted. Our school district is seriously considering starting a new PBL high school (school-within-a-school or self-contained, tbd), and I am on the committee doing the initial research and planning. Thank you all so much, I look forward to learning so much more.

Tim McNamara's picture

To: Jeff d.


I have been working with the PBL school-within-a-school model for several years and think I have info that might be able to help out. email me at

Tim McNamara

[quote]I am so excited to have found this blog with all of the valuable information posted. Our school district is seriously considering starting a new PBL high school (school-within-a-school or self-contained, tbd), and I am on the committee doing the initial research and planning. Thank you all so much, I look forward to learning so much more.[/quote]

George Hademenos's picture
George Hademenos
Physics teacher from Richardson, Texas

Thank you for a very informative discussion and useful information. PBIL is more than just a catchy term or hot topic - it is literally an instructional tool that, in my opinion, is transforming the educational experience. From developing aquatic robots to rescue survivors from a capsized vessel, to launching a high altitude weather balloon to 90,000 feet while collecting data, or using Legos to create Mars Rover vehicles as they participate in a Mission to Mars, I am almost as excited to present the project as my students are to engage in the project. You are correct in that it is easy to make something sound good on paper - if it weren't for Professor Murphy and his laws. In each project, it has taken me at least one of not several tries to refine the presentation and understanding of these projects by the students but the satisfaction that comes about when the projects finally click is priceless. I look forward to reading more of your blogs and the information that you provide regarding PBIL.

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