NOW READING: How to Begin Putting the Passion in Project-Based Learning

How to Begin Putting the Passion in Project-Based Learning

How do we as teachers get our students to define their own driving questions? One way is by pairing design thinking with project-based learning. If you want students to develop leadership, confidence, and solid core content knowledge, then this is a strategy that works "learning miracles."

Students crave assignments that are relevant to them. That’s why project-based learning is the best way to get students to take control of their learning. Here are some keys to getting the most out of project-based learning.

A Solid Plan for PBL

When Lisa Abel-Palmieri worked with The Ellis School, she honed her practice of project-based learning. Her experience gives us this advice:

The Driving Question should be clearly worded, but flexible enough to change course. Allow the driving question to grow organically as a seed does. Keeping the driving question relevant prevents student interest from waning. Allowing students to define their own driving questions also ensures buy-in and initiative from them.

Design Thinking. If you want students to develop leadership, confidence, and solid core content knowledge, pairing design thinking with PBL is a must. The at Stanford is an amazing place to start. Take the time to check out their video “Redesigning the Gift Giving Experience.”

Facilitating DP0 (rough cut) from Stanford on Vimeo.

Design thinking is the template to getting at the heart of meaningful, heart-centered learning, creating and discovering.

Plan which design methods you will use. Only through proper planning can one find liberty to be flexible. Design methods are outlined in LUMA Institute'sTaxonomy of Innovation and a few are described here:

    1. Will you use “What’s on your Radar?” Think of a bull’s eye dart board with 4 pie sections. The center of the dart board symbolizes those targets that are the most priority. The pie sections refer to categories. By pinpointing where different aspects fall within the target, students can get a visual of what’s really important and what to tackle first.
      radar source:
    2. Will you use "interviewing and learning walks?" Teach students how to really dig in deep and interview each other or prospective clients. Design interview questions, critique mock interviews, and analyze data. Use online collaboration methods to record results for the entire team.
    3. Will you use "Creative Matrix?" At the top of the matrix are your categories;  things you might want to tackle or problems that you might want to solve. Include a last column called “wild card” for things you didn’t think of at first. The Left side is how you might tackle the problems in broad categories like “Products to help solve the problem,” “services to help solve the problem,” or “events to help solve the problem.” The bottom row is another wild card for unforeseen ideas. Using sticky notes,  students can post their ideas in the appropriate sections.
matrix thinking source:

Blended learning. Of course, pairing traditional and online solutions is key:

  1. Online collaboration tools are useful, especially when students are inspired outside of class. They can log in and communicate, and the project lives outside of your classroom. Have a central cloud space for storing all your data with access for everybody.
  2. Flipped instruction saves time when disseminating important content. Eliminate the need for repeating lectures. Allow students to access the content when and where they want.
  3. BYOD or school issued hardware allows students to use what is familiar to them, as long as your software works seamlessly.

Gallup Strengths Finder 2.0. Letting students realize their strengths is a mature and invaluable process that stays with them as they grow. They develop a sense of working together as a team and know how they contribute to the greater whole.

GANTT charts. “A Gantt chart is a visual representation of a project schedule. A type of bar chart, Gantt charts show the start and finish dates of the different required elements of a project. Henry Laurence Gantt, an American mechanical engineer, is recognized for developing the Gantt chart.” (Quote from

Forward thinking allows for efficient use of time. When students work with real clients either locally or globally, they become innovators and agents of change. They develop a professional attitude and a sense of importance and empowerment. And they network and create relationships that are meaningful in the long run.

What Else Can We Use?

While these steps alone make for a solid PBL unit. there are certainly many other ways it can be done. What works for you?

Here are some additional tips on getting the most out of project-based learning from Terry Freedman. These have more to do with the actual flow of the class, assessment, and how kids will work together.

Seek out “Rich” Problems with many dimensions rather than those that are “cut and dry.”  There are many aspects and answers to a rich question, and many angles to be explored. Don't come up with it alone. Parents, students and faculty can help come up with suggestions.

Monitoring. While you want to be on guard for students who may be focused only on one aspect of the project or students who end up doing little, consider these words of wisdom:

  • While students may get distracted, understand that part of our nature is to need rest or down time. If you feel they are getting too much of this, a simple gesture of eye contact and pointing to your watch or the wall clock might get them engaged again.
  • On the other hand, don’t be too eager to pounce on the kid who seems to chat a lot. Just because you don’t see his brain working doesn’t mean something’s not happening. Everyone works in different ways.

Assessment. Here's a nice simple three-step approach:

  • Document who did what.
  • Have the students do a self-assessment of what they accomplished.
  • Talk to kids one on one to assess their improvement individually.

Seek real progression. Remember the desired outcome is growth. How will you see how each student has gained skills from the beginning to the end? Give all opportunities to all students. To ensure that students have experience with all skills, roles might change during a given project or from one project to the next. One might do data entry for a portion then switch to design for the next.

Plan the next working session at the end of the previous session. Time should be set aside for the following tasks:

  • Students should discuss what they accomplished.
  • What do they want to happen next session?
  • What do they have to do in the meantime to get there?

Ensure quality learning with constant feedback.

  • Provide prompt assistance when a need is observed. 5 minutes wait time is a stretch.
  • If you’re unable to attend to someone yourself, employ an “Ask 3, then me” procedure where students seek out help from each other before coming to you.
  • Delegate “class experts” to help others when opportunity arises. “Johnny” might be the go-to person for all things Excel; “Jenny” might be the design guru.
  • Have websites or printed resources on hand for when the need presents itself.
  • Instructions should be written clearly for everyone to see.
  • There’s always something to do. Teach students the mantra, “If I can’t do what I want, I’ll do what I can.”
  • Being aware of those in need while helping who is in front of you.

Remember, organized chaos is a good thing—as long as you do all of the above.

I wish the idea of project-based learning was more prevalent back when I was going to school. Then again, I had Band class, which employed its own “performance-based learning” concept; every concert and marching band field show had problems and challenges to overcome. And we were eager to step to the task as a team. I suppose that’s why I loved it so much.

It’s true: engaging the passions of your students through a well-thought out and meaningful project-based learning unit coupled with design thinking creates students with strong leadership, confidence, and solid core content knowledge. In the process, they become innovators and agents of change.

Additional Reading