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The simple 5-step process for the best project- based learning experiences

A mile wide or a mile deep? Your choice?

When I first started teaching over a decade ago, I had the privilege of witnessing a zen master. His classroom was like a yoga studio. The lights were dimmed, soft music played in the background, and students worked effortlessly. Most incredibly was the fact that students were not seated in neat rows with their hands folded compliantly on their desks. Rather, they were spread around throughout the classroom. Some students sat on soft bean bags, reading their short stories in pairs, while others sat a conference table, discussing themes found in the literature and how it related to their current lives. Contrast this picture to the scene most of us conjure up when witnessing project- based learning: Most of us envision a manic collection of random activities where there appears to be no central order, or guiding principal.

Deeper Learning for your students

You don't have to be a Level 5 zen master to create the kind of classroom environment most conducive for student learning. You just have to be clear about the outcomes. A chaotic classroom is oftentimes the result of unclear objectives. Are your students aware of the bigger picture? What major understandings do you want students to reach? Do they know what they are working towards? Does the work they are completing attach to a larger goal? This commitment to "deeper learning" and laser- like focus will make your year feel like one cohesive learning journey, rather than a rushed assembly of activities, assignments and handouts.

The Simple 5-step process for Project- Based Learning

Engaging your students in projects helps them feel like they are working towards authentic goals, rather than forced objectives. It will increase engagement in your classroom, provide clarity in how you plan, and make your class a rich oasis of deeper learning. Here are the 5- steps to ensure the projects are kick butt:


Step 1: Choose a topic

Create a three circle venn- diagram with these three headings:

  • Real World Topics

  • Curriculum Topics

  • Student and Teacher Passions

Start listing topics. Ones that overlap all three areas are the best topics for a project. Once you have chosen a good topic, move on to Step #2.

Step 2: Connect to Experts

Find experts that work in your topic or field. Start with your parents. Send an e-mail to all your parents informing them that you are looking to create a unit around _______ topic. Ask who has experience in the field. Attend networking events. Find experts who work in the field. Finally, try contacting NGO's related to your topic. Ask each of these experts what they do in this topic. For example, if it's global warming, perhaps the expert works to get energy efficient light bulbs in all homes. Knowing what these experts do around your topic area will allow you to move on to Step #3.

Step 3: Establish a final product/ presentation

Determine what it is that students will produce in this project. After consulting with experts, you will have several examples of what people do in the real world to resolve the particular issue. For example, when we found out that local entrepreneurs created start up pitches and mock prototypes of their products when trying to start their small businesses, we asked students to do the same. Knowing what experts in the real world do will help you guide your students to more authentic tasks. Finally, make sure what you are asking students to produce is CONCRETE and tangible. It needs to be something that you can define and explain to someone in one sentence.

Step 4: Create a driving question

Once you have created a concrete statement for what students will produce, create a driving question that will get them there. This driving question will be the force that sets the learning into motion at the beginning of the unit. It should be open- ended and connected to the learning students need to fulfill the project task. For example, if you are asking students to create small businesses to raise funds for local charity, your question might be: "How do we use the principals of entrepreneurship to meet a community need?" Again, the question should create a 'need to know' for the knowledge and skills students need to be successful in the project.

Step 5: Create milestones/assessments

Now that you have established the starting and ending point for the project, establish milestones to help students get there. These milestones represent the assessments students will complete. They will have to demonstrate mastery of the standards you are required to teach. For example, when asking students to create small businesses, we created three milestones listed below:

  1. Create a product for a bake sale: This exposed students to some of the basic principals of entrepreneurship

  2. Start-up in 24 hours: This was a collaboration between students and real entrepreneurs in the community to create a pitch for their start up. It allowed them to get necessary feedback to guide them in the next stage of development

  3. Create a business plan: This ensured they thought through how they would ensure their business was successful

  4. Sale Week: This is the week that students would sell their products to raise money for a local charity.

In Closing

Adhering to this simple 5 step process will help you simplify learning for your students, and ensure that they see the big picture. You will also avoid the mistake of creating lots of activities and objectives that go a mile wide, but only an inch deep. Your classroom will be zenful, with laser-like focus, and students who are engaged in deeper learning. Here's to you and your success!

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Kyle Wagner
School Transformation and Project- Based Learning Coach

I coach school leaders on how to lead change and improve student learning through simple, innovative srategies and teaming structures.

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