I’m actually slightly behind in my reading, blogging, and reflection – as I had multiple trainings this week. Therefore, during my workout, I had to cannibalize my usual reading/reflection time (5am–6am each day) for last-minute presentation prep.

For those not in the know, I have a stationary bike – with an attached desk – set up in our family’s laundry room. I’m typically pedaling – and sweating – away as I type these blogs (multitasking at its finest). I’ve committed to reflect as I learn PBL. Five o’clock in the morning is the best time for me. And, like Mom always says, “Where there is a will, there is a way.” #NoExcuses #FindTheTime #JustDoIt

Last Sunday, I finished reading chapter 4, which covers designing a project, in Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning. Here are the gems I found and the thoughts I had while reading:

Teacher Training

Projects vs Project-Based Learning

Before leading students into PBL, teachers must retool their thinking about “projects”:

  • No isolated models or dioramas: An isolated project (a model of a volcano, a model of a cell, or a battlefield diorama) supplement learning; PBL is the conduit through which instruction is given – like a unit (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 69). Students in PBL are solving a problem – not recreating a thing or an event.
  • No recipes: An isolated project is a recipe; students follow directions from the teacher to produce a project; and each project is a mirror image (at least in spirit) of the one next to it (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 69). In PBL, a driving question prompts inquiry. Truly open-ended questions can have multiple right answers. Projects are not cast from the same mold. As a result, they are not identical – and – there can be multiple solutions to the same problem
  • No flying solo: An isolated project can be completed by a single student (often at home) (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 69). PBL strives for peer-to-peer collaboration in class; students in a group must rely upon individual strengths to achieve the group goal – with the bulk of the work being completed during class time (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 69).
  • Problem solving and inquiry rule the roost: In an isolated project, the product is the centerpiece (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 69). In PBL, sustained inquiry is the ringmaster and is worked into the project (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 69). Students are not following a recipe; they are solving a problem or answering a real-world question.

Planning – Lesson Thought vs Unit Thinking

  • Planning (like a unit or like a lesson): Designing a project is like planning a unit – not a lesson. (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 65). There are a lot of pedagogical plates spinning in a project. Small projects can take days to complete; large projects can take a week, two, or more; and some projects can take months (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 65). My advice: If a project is like a unit, treat it like one. What can the teacher and the students achieve in the time they have? Teachers should give careful consideration to the scope and sequence and should then consider combining complementary units to glean more time if needed. Like units, projects require multiple learning goals and multiple lessons. Stagger your instructional time. Structure class time to give a day or two to teaching and a day or two for students to work on their projects. PBL is NOT teach, teach, teach, and then throw a project on top as an accessory, accent, or punctuation at the end. Learning and then doing rule the day in PBL.
  • How much time do students need?: That depends on the task at hand. At minimum students need time to investigate, create products or devise solutions, review each other’s work, and revise – before going public in a formal presentation (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 78).  Remember, start small and crescendo through experience (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 76). And, in case you missed it . . . .
  • start small And BUILD: Since we are new to PBL, we need to pace ourselves. As rookies, we should err on the side of overplanning (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 66). Therefore, we may want to consider giving students limited roles in the development of learning goals, the type of projects to be produced, and how to make them public (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 66). We can work out the kinks in group collaboration and through constant reflection – refining our processes as we do them and during post-project review. As we grow more comfortable in PBL, we can (and should) relinquish more and more control to the students.
  • A measured, disciplined approach: As the dive into PBL begins, keep ambition in check. Take a more conservative approach to PBL at first. After all, it’s easy to coach students when their work is at a manageable level (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 76). We want to stretch students and teachers. We don’t want to break them. It’s better for educators and, more importantly, students to start small and work towards bigger and better goals (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 77). Unchecked frustration at the student and teacher levels may be the death knell of PBL in a classroom or school. I suspect it’s very easy to bite off more than can be chewed. Therefore, I need to constantly monitor students and teachers for burnout. I’m all for audacity, but I do see the wisdom in learning from smaller, more manageable projects and then crescendoing to ambitious endeavors later. How is the desired intensity reached? See the next point:
  • Reflect! Reflect! Reflect!: We must teach teachers and students to reflect in each step of the PBL process. If one chooses to learn from an error, a mistake can pay for itself. It’s folly to repeat mistakes because one refuses to take the time to learn from them. Likewise, what lessons were gleaned from success? Learn from them, as well. Repeat what works; tweak, revise, and revamp what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to hit delete and start over.
  • Multidisciplinary projects: Multidisciplinary projects (social studies and math; English and science) add complexity – especially at secondary levels where teachers may or may not have a common planning time  (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 80). I must work with them to find solutions to the obstacles they may encounter in scheduling (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 80).
  • Sources for project ideas: Investigate. Look for projects that have been done by other teachers and classes; then, customize them to fit your needs (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 81). Project ideas can come from just about anywhere. Analyze your environment to uncover needs in the school, the community, current events, the real-world, and student home lives (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 82). Dig into the content standards to find readiness standards that have students demonstrate – not merely regurgitate facts (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 85). From there, build a project off a set of standards that prompt students to have in depth knowledge of a topic (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 85). The key here is inquiry and learning – not a recitation of common knowledge or answers that can be easily fished from a search engine. The Larmer, Mergendollar, and Boss text also has an appendix full of ideas to kick start us.

Student Training

  • Your Audience: As you design solutions to the questions in the project problem, consider your audience carefully; your audience will determine the type of product you produce (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 76). Where does your audience live? Where does your audience work? What does your audience do professionally and in leisure time? Design products they will use or engage in their everyday world. Better yet, take a marketing approach: How can you entice them to engage your product? Suggestive marketing? Just thoughts.
  • Teamwork: PBL does not lend itself to students working in isolation. For the most part, our students aren’t accustomed to working in academic/professional teams – each member having an assigned role – the whole working as one unit. However, they are not foreign to the concept of teamwork – as a great many of them participate in extracurricular activities (sports, band, theater, etc). We must translate their knowledge of team activities and clubs into the classroom. It is wise to lay the groundwork prior to the first project (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 76).

The work continues . . .


Larmer, J., Mergendoller, J. R., & Boss, S. (2015). Setting the standard for project based learning: A proven approach to rigorous classroom instruction. ASCD.

Matthew Kitchens
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Matthew Kitchens

Learning Technologies Coach at Burleson ISD
Matthew Kitchens
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Reflection: Designing a Project
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