Climbing the Project-Based Learning Mountain


1. Start at a trail marker.

The best way to plan a PBL is to start with one single standard in one subject. I usually plan around Math for my project-based learning activities. Once you come up with a topic that goes with this subject, you will find many other standards that it meets. Remember to envision the standard being used in real life.

Sketch out a basic outline, then come up with a guiding question. A guiding question is a question that students must work through your project in order to answer. In my Kid in a Candy Store PBL, students work hard to seek the answer to the guiding question “What tools and abilities do I need to start a successful business?” At the end of the project after they have done their final calculations, students can fully answer this question. They need stock, storefront, checkout counter, and employees. They need the ability to calculate profit (or loss) using multiple pieces of information and to problem solve.

2. Find an experienced guide.

Do you know someone that’s done project-based learning before? Connecting with experienced PBL teachers is a great way to get your worries and questions answered. If you don’t know anyone at your school, connect with teachers on Facebook. There are quite a few teacher Facebook groups popping up, and if you’re the member of a large one, I bet you can find someone who is great with PBL. You can e-mail me to talk how to start project-based learning in your classroom.

Join the free Facebook group here to get help from other teachers!

3. Bring the right gear.

Before you begin project-based learning with your students, ask yourself what materials will make the project stand out. What can you provide to help students build something with their hands? I’ve had many teachers tell me that they actually built a lemonade stand to raise money for their school or a charity while doing my math Start a Lemonade Stand PBL. Although your main focus are the standards you’re hitting, being able to have students do something with their hands is so important. I talked about how students are less likely to misbehave during great PBL in my blog post on Classroom Management During Project-based Learning.

Continue to add materials and activities during a PBL as well. If you notice that what the students are doing is connected to something else, or your students seem particularly interested in a specific facet of the project, incorporate as much of it as you can. Bring in informational books, science projects, news articles, and anything else you can think of to enrich the project.

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4. Hike as a team.

Get your team members and other teachers on board before you start. The more people you have working on PBL in your building, the more support you will have. Make sure that you meet often to talk about what parts of the project are working well and what parts need to be refined. If you’re departmentalized, get other subject area teachers involved to make great connections to your project in each subject area. I include these connections in all of my Math PBL, and I’m sure you could get even more ideas from talking with these teachers.

Don’t get discouraged if the other teachers are reluctant to try project-based learning. You may have to try it on your own at first, then slowly bring in the other teachers when they see that it’s working. Although it’s easier to work with other teachers when trying something new, it can also be nice to be a trailblazer!

5. Celebrate each mile marker.

As a teacher you already know that not everything is going to go as you plan it. Celebrate the small milestones like seeing one of your normally struggling students get into the project, or a student working on an extension of the project at home without you asking them to. Take each part of the project slow and enrich it with the other subject-areas and your students will learn. If it seems hectic at first, try spreading students out to work in smaller groups. Your students will get loud because they’re excited. If you do have classroom management issues, check out my blog post with some tips on handling these.

Enjoy the excitement and the chaos, because your students are enjoying learning!


April Smith

Curriculum Writer and Online Professional Development Coach. 


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