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How to come up with the idea for your kick- ass PBL experience

When working with teachers and school leaders new to project- based learning, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is:

“How to I come up with the idea for the project?”

This single question can cause the greatest amount of stress, anxiety and worry for the novice PBL teacher. Heck, even the most seasoned PBL instructors struggle to come up with kick- ass ideas for projects. For many of us, it’s the biggest road block to getting started. Ideas swirl around in our heads for weeks on end, causing lack of sleep and fits of panic in the middle of the night.

Meanwhile, the deadline to start the project is fast approaching, and we don’t have a single idea developed on paper.

Sound like any of you?

I’ve got good news for you. Those days of panic and inaction are over. I’m going to help you take action so that you can get into the fun part of planning great experiences, incorporating technology, and individualizing learning to engage all of your learners.

Below you will find five simple sources for great project- based experiences.

Source #1: Real World Problems/ Challenges

I find this to be the #1 greatest source for kick- ass project- based experiences. There’s no need to fake authenticity here. Students will instantaneously see the buy in, as they know it will directly impact them. To discover real world problems/ challenges, it’s important that you empower your students to be problem seekers. Create three concentric circles labeled, “school," “community” and “world.” Work with students to brainstorm problems and challenges that fall into each category. Narrow the list down by asking students to vote on the problem/ challenge they think is the most important to solve.

Expert Tip: Make sure to choose topics here that students can make a real impact on. Ending global hunger isn’t going to happen in a 6- week project; but helping a local food bank provide holiday meals for the homeless definitely can.

Source #2: Student and Teacher Passion

Anytime your project can tap into the things you and your kids are passionate about, you are definitely going to see an increase in engagement. Want to discover what your students are passionate about? Discover what they do in their after school time. Find activities that you find most of your students are engaged in. Avoid asking students, “What are you passionate about?” and instead, provide a prompt that asks them to describe their “perfect day.” This will provide great insight and inspiration for a project idea.

Expert Tip: Make sure you cross reference student’s passions with your curriculum. Find where the two intersect to ensure that the project is rigorous. There’s a difference between a “project- based” experience and a “passion project.”

Source #3: Curricular Standards and Benchmarks

Starting with your curricular standards and benchmarks for project ideas will keep your curriculum coordinator and PBL skeptics happy. Start by laying out your standards and benchmarks and look for overarching topics and themes. Highlight the standards and benchmarks that allude to this theme using three different colored highlighters. Some examples include “sustainability,” “entrepreneurship,” and “conflict.”

Expert Tip: Remember to think big picture. Don’t develop project- based experiences around one single standard. This will limit your project. Instead look for how your standards and benchmarks manifest themselves in the real world.

Source #4: Existing Projects

Let’s face it, when you are first starting PBL, having a pre- packaged project to deliver with students is sometimes the greatest anxiety reducer. The project based experiences often come with supplemental resources, rubrics for assessment, and models. These concrete deliverables will help guide students. Here are a few places to find those projects:

Expert Tip: Make sure to make these projects “your own.” Adapt them to best fit the needs of your learners and community.

Source #5: A combination of #1-4

In the ideal world, a well-designed project would address a real world problem, center around student and teacher passion, be rigorous, and have models past implementation. If you want to take the challenge and create a litmus test for your initial project idea, I suggest creating a simple four circle venn diagram. In each circle, list sources #1-4. After brainstorming possible ideas, find the ideas that intersect all four. You now have your idea for your first project!

Expert Tip: Remember to keep it simple. Don’t stress to make your project too far reaching. If your project addresses real world problems and is curricular rich, but hasn’t been done in the past, no stress, you will be able to break new ground!

In Closing

Coming up with a solid project idea is oftentimes the hardest part of project planning. Make it fun and simple by using the sources of inspiration included above.

Got an idea for a project but need help working out some of the details? Get the simple and easy to use project planner that I used to design projects at High Tech High and with all my client schools. E-mail me at and I will give it to you for free.

To 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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