This guide is meant as a quick summary of things that you (or I) should consider when designing or implementing a project with students.
Some ways to define Project Based Learning:
- “deep immersion in a consequential activity” (Bruner, 1966)
- “…wholehearted purposeful activity proceeding in a social environment…” (William Heard Kilpatrick, 1918)
Where do I start?
While every project conception is different, the project nearly always starts with one of the following:
- A Product – What do you want the students to create? Example: “A two minute documentary film”
- An Essential Question – What question guides the student experience or what question are the students trying to answer with their work? Example: “Is democracy the most effective means of government?”
- Goals, skills & content – What do you want your students to learn, do, or accomplish during this project? Example: “I want students to interact meaningfully with adult professionals, understand how the democratic process works, and learn how to record and edit videos.”
- Audience & Exhibition – When, where, how, and to whom will students present their completed works? Example: “Students will present their videos to the local city council just before the primary election season.”
Dream big but think small: Once you’ve found a project idea you’re passionate about, you should let your imagination flourish but then bring it back and think about process.
Roadblocks and Bottlenecks: Think about each particular component of the project. Are each of those components: achievable, practical, affordable, or necessary? If you’re planning on filming and editing a 90 minute HD documentary and all you have are netbooks, then it may be time to reconsider or modify your project idea.
Embrace Constraints Student creativity is our goal, but that doesn’t mean we should give them a vague open-ended goal. “Build Something Cool” would be a terrible prompt for a long term project with specific learning goals. As Ben Daley says on his blog, ”Complex structures beget simple behaviors and simple structures beget complex behaviors”. Create some simple structures that will allow them be creative. Students do much better if you restrict certain mundane aspects of the project and simplifying unnecessary complications help to ensure you are available for the real teaching moments. Some examples of these simple structures are:
- Your video must be between four and five minutes long.
- You must use Baltic Birch plywood for your final construction.
- All final products must fit inside a 12″ x 12″ x 12″ project envelope.
Forgive yourself in advance for what is going to be a very loud and messy process!
Capture/Record Intermediate Products: Throughout the project, scan or photograph all intermediate project steps and documents. This helps to …
- prevent students from losing things
- ensure all group members have access to import files
- ensure you have what you need for assessment (even if the kids are on break)
- ensure you have evidence for student and teacher reflection
- exhibit work
Capture/Record/Document the Experience: The experience is equally important to capture and is paramount to meaningful student and teacher reflection. Journaling, progress logs, or confession-booth video logs are recommended.
Explicit Learning Targets: While this may sound terribly obvious, it’s not something I do naturally. I tend to design projects such that completion of the final product is only possible if students have achieved mastery of a topic. However, I often get bogged down with all the other things that I don’t think they are mastering as much as I’d like. In these cases, it helps to create a prioritized list of learning targets. In hindsight, for my work on the Apocalypto Project, these could have been:
- All students must understand: Torque, Angular Velocity, Simple Machines, using the Laser Cutter, and using Adobe Illustrator
- All students should: improve how they deal with adversity
- I would like it if students: improved their Mechanical Engineering Skills, understand KE/PE, and can perform geometric constructions.
Iterate: Plan the best you can but also be comfortable iterating your project design as you get to know the students. That means the plan will probably change a few times along the way.
If a graphic organizer is helpful, here are a few common ones:
- Brainstorm an Idea.
- Backfill the remaining unknowns: product, essential question, exhibition, skills & content.
- Reverse engineer the outcomes, look to the calendar for timing, and organize deliverables.
- Fill in the specific activities for each day, week, or module.