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How to Design Student Projects Like a Pro

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
Related Tags: Teacher Leadership
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With one big idea after another -- from the Apple mouse to more patient-friendly emergency rooms -- the global consulting firm IDEO has built a reputation for innovative thinking.

In a new book, Change by Design, CEO Tim Brown shares key strategies that have catapulted his firm to success. I found myself enthusiastically nodding along as I imagined the same strategies applied to project learning (PL).

21st Century Kid

Although Brown makes a strong case for unlocking creativity in the classroom, his main focus is not education. Instead, he describes a process for problem solving that he calls design thinking. (Read about a Stanford University initiative to bring design thinking into education in this article, "Educators Approach Curriculum Development as Product Design," about the program.)

It's through projects, Brown says, that ideas move from concept to reality.

With rich examples, Brown gives us a behind-the-scenes look at projects from different sectors. He also brings up many of the questions that I hear teachers ask as they get started with PL: What's the right question to launch a project? How do we form effective teams? How can we manage our time better?

Getting Started

One of Brown's favorite strategies is to build on others' ideas. So, following his lead, I've borrowed five of his field-tested strategies and reframed them for PL:

1. Start with a Project Brief

Designers typically start a project with a brief. Brown explains that this document describes "a set of mental constraints that gives the project a team a framework from which to begin, benchmarks by which they can measure progress, and a set of objectives to be realized."

Translate this to PL language and you wind up with a solid project plan that's based on standards and incorporates authentic assessment. Just like a well-designed brief, a good PL plan sets some constraints but isn't overly scripted. As Brown reminds us, it's important to leave room for breakthrough ideas: "If you already know what you are after, there is usually not much point in looking."

2. Ask, "How Might We...?"

Each design challenge at IDEO, Brown says, begins with this question: "How Might We?" Brown offers one example -- "How might we improve the airport-security experience?" -- to introduce a fascinating case study about a project with the Transportation Security Administration.

Similarly, in PL, a well-crafted driving question helps to focus student inquiry. The right-sized question for a project is neither too broad nor too specific. And if it can be answered by going to Google, it's the wrong question to ask.

3. Form Smart Teams

"All of us are smarter than any of us." That's a popular saying around IDEO, Brown says, and suggests why every project involves a team effort.

In PL, as in real life, projects are typically too large for one person to tackle solo. Teachers can learn from the pros when it comes to forming and managing project teams. "Smart teams," Brown tells us, are typically small, focused, and multidisciplinary. What's more, teams tend to get their best results when members share a sense of optimism about the task and have opportunities to exchange thoughts verbally as well as visually.

4. Make Rules for Better Brainstorming

Brainstorming is so central to its work that IDEO has rooms dedicated to this process. It's worth remembering that brainstorming is a process, complete with rules of engagement. At IDEO, Brown says, these rules are literally written on the walls: Defer judgment. Encourage wild ideas. Stay focused on the topic. And, perhaps most important, build on the ideas of others.

To keep classroom brainstorming sessions from turning into a free-for-all, PL teachers would be wise to create rules of engagement with their students and then keep these rules posted in a visible spot. Think of it as an opportunity to brainstorm about brainstorming.

5. Embrace the Mess

Complexity comes with the territory for folks like Brown. He identifies some of the skills that help design thinkers do their challenging work: "the ability to spot patterns in the mess of complex inputs, to synthesize new ideas from fragmented parts, to empathize with people different from ourselves." In other words, design thinkers learn how to "embrace the mess."

Letting Go

Project learning is often a messy endeavor, too. In well-designed projects that allow for student choice, team members may be working on a number of different activities simultaneously. Some may go in unexpected directions or ask questions for which the teacher has no ready answers. Then there's the "stuff" of projects, which may involve research, prototypes, storyboards, or multimedia presentations.

Embrace this mess, too, suggests Brown.

At IDEO, teams are assigned project rooms where they can keep the artifacts of their work-in-progress. Keeping all this stuff visible "helps us identify patterns and encourage creative synthesis to occur," he says. It also gives team members opportunities to see and talk about each other's work.

Inside of hiding the mess behind cupboards or in desks, welcome it as the raw material of ideas.

What strategies help you navigate projects with your students? Please tell us what works.

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Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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Karla Williams's picture

I really liked "All of us are smarter than any of us." I have been learning to embrace the mess of project learning and working in teams. There have been many times that students learned more from the "mess" than they would have if there had been no mess.

Andrea Lemmer's picture

I like the idea of having SOME project constraints, but not too many. I have been working towards giving my students more freedom when it comes to the outcome of their projects. I used to be much more specific in my guidelines, and I found that many of the projects turned out to be quite similar. It is amazing what kids can do if you give them some direction, but allow them to interpret things in their own way. I have been so impressed with the creativity my seventh graders have shown me this year on projects like creating songs, skits, and books. The only thing I have really specified is the topic and in return I have seen some incredible final projects.

I am also learning to let go a little bit more. I like my room to be neat and clean, but I have learned that it is important to allow students to keep their projects visible until they are complete. It's also neat to hear other students compliment the ideas and work of their classmates as they see their projects coming together. I am fortnate to have a very large room that allows for this, and I'm beginning to take advantage of it.

Lisa Berkey's picture

Suzie, do you have an example of a project brief that you would be willing to share? Do others? That would help explain the types of information and constraints you mention.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Hi Lisa,
For starters, you might want to scan a couple project briefs from the big-budget world that IDEO inhabits. Here's one example:
Here's some background reading from The Open University about how (and why)to write a project brief:
What might a project plan look like in the K-12 world? The Buck Institute for Education offers a good sample from a high school/physics project on designing a ballistic device. You can download the sample project plan from the BIE website (

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

How exciting! Loved reading your blog, Susie and Andrea. I've been working with PBL for a while and never perfected it. Definitely going to get the Brown book but I was introduced to IDEO a few years back while getting my masters. They are a fascinating group of people. Wouldn't it be awesome if our PLTs could work with such enthusiasm, energy, and generosity!

But down to the nitty gritty-- here are some methods I am trying in my classroom. We take a long piece of butcher paper and make it our timeline. As we work on the project, each day a student or students will mark the timeline with what we learned, we can add pictures, questions, and a to-do list if necessary. That keeps us moving. At the beginning of a unit, we keep a wonder wall which is a growing list of questions that pop up and that students or I have. These questions can later become the basis of someone's inquiry. It also gives us a place to see how to write a rich, researchable question (I do my best to model that, too.) Finally, students know that there will be an audience for our final presentation. This has proven to be the key in helping students communicate more clearly, present more professionally, and really be prepared. I agree with Andrea. This year has been our best year for final products. We've achieved more than ever in not only our process but our product as well. I have the luxury of working with the same students over the years and we've all improved tenfold from what was produced the year before. I can hardly wait for the coming school year! The depth and complexity of their work is so exciting!

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

Just so you know-- my students have the option of working in groups, with a partner, or alone. Most work in small groups. The final product is an inquiry of their own choice. On our study of human impact on the Chesapeake Bay, students explored a wide range of topics. Some shared through powerpoint, demonstration of a key concept, a science lab, a poster, a model, use of real artifacts, etc. All demonstrated an indepth knowledge of the ecosystem and the challenges facing it and provided their own solutions. Really cool!

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

[quote]As we work on the project, each day a student or students will mark the timeline with what we learned, we can add pictures, questions, and a to-do list if necessary. That keeps us moving. At the beginning of a unit, we keep a wonder wall which is a growing list of questions that pop up and that students or I have. These questions can later become the basis of someone's inquiry...Finally, students know that there will be an audience for our final presentation. [/quote]
Thanks for sharing these terrific ideas. I love the butcher paper timeline (with student annotations). Sometimes, a low-tech tool is the best one for the job.
Along with your smart strategies, I'm willing to bet that your enthusiasm for PBL is another factor in student success. Thanks for sharing.

Luke A. Johnson's picture

Linda, I think you have some great ideas regarding student projects. I might give the butcher paper idea a shot. I have found from personal experience that it can be diffucult to get the kids to work together and find a way to bring all of the material together in some way. Thank you for the ideas.

Sara's picture

Thanks for sharing the getting started ideas. I am new to the PBL approach and will be starting my first project this school year. The five strategies are definitely helping to wrap my head around the whole idea. I love the butcher paper time line as well and was also thinking about doing something similar through podcasts or a class website. That way their parents will be able to access the information as well and talk more in depth when their students gets home from school.

geminijys's picture
9th-grade EFL teacher in China

very soon I am going to conduct my first project with my students. very upset and not sure how to get started. Your posters are great help to me, thanks!

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