kids next to a school bus


Over the summer, you may have spent some time planning what you think will be a great project. You’re eager to see how it engages your students—but should you launch it on Day One of the school year, or should you wait until, say, Week Two, Three, or even later to start the project?

The answer is: it depends.

It may be just fine to start the year with a project if your students already know what it means to work PBL-style. If your school has a robust Project Based Learning program, or at least the teachers your students had last year did a lot of PBL, starting your class with a project sends a message to students: let's get right to it, this is how we learn here. It engages them actively right away; there’s no time to think, “OK, here I am, back in boring old school.”

But what if your students are not very experienced with PBL? Are they able to work in teams, conduct inquiry, and make a presentation to an audience? Have they ever been asked to think about an open-ended question or use problem-solving strategies? Have they ever had to complete a complex task over an extended period of time, one that involved planning, organization, and processes for critique and revision?

Do they know how to use online and print resources to find answers to their questions? Do they know what a rubric is? Can they handle the technology they’ll need, or will they drag out the project by spending days and days figuring out how to produce those slick videos you envisioned?

If the answer to these questions is “no” or “I’m not sure” then it might be good to lay a foundation first, and build students’ skills before beginning project work. Taking the time to do this will pay off by making your first project go much more smoothly.

Ways to approach the foundation-laying job

You could have students practice what they’ll need for PBL in a series of lessons, which could be discreet or combined.

For example, teach them:

  • How to do research and evaluate the quality of sources of information
  • How to work in teams
  • Processes for problem-solving
  • How to give and receive critical feedback on their work.
  • How to use a new tech tool,
  • How to speak in public and organize a presentation. 

Or instead of separate lessons, you could have students experience one or more “mini-projects” which emphasize various success skills and habits of mind. For example, one teacher I know had students create infographics about themselves in the first week of school, which taught them design and tech skills as well as what it means to work in a PBL environment. For more examples of mini-projects and suggestions for explaining PBL to students, see this post from last summer.

Important Reminder: When you do these PBL skill-building lessons or mini-projects, make sure their focus is also on important content and academic skills drawn from your standards. Create PBL practice opportunities that also teach subject-area facts, terminology, concepts, skills, and processes.

Tips for preparing students for success skills they’ll need for PBL

Here are some examples of how to teach students about the “4 C’s” drawn from our book, PBL for 21st Century Success:

Critical Thinking
  • Have students do activities that involve problem-solving, such as brain teasers, puzzles, or a construction task (such as building a tower of straws or a spaghetti bridge). Debrief the ways in which they used critical thinking.
  • Give students an open-ended task such as thinking of various endings for a story, recommending what to do in a case study scenario, or proposing solutions to a problem. Debrief the process they used and how it might be improved.
  • Help students understand what critical thinking means by asking them to define it in their own words. Have them create posters for the classroom wall to remind them how to ask good questions, follow a problem-solving process or analyze a source of information.
  • Allow students to practice teamwork skills in low-stakes activities such as games, physical activities, and challenges to build or make something.
  • Have students practice project management skills in short activities where they learn how to play various roles, use decision-making processes, divide up tasks among the team, write a team contract, and set a schedule.
  • Help students understand what collaboration means by asking them to define it in their own words. Have them create posters for the classroom wall to remind them how to work well in teams.
  • Teach students how to listen actively, take notes, ask questions, and contact experts or people in the community and online.
  • Have students learn and practice the skills of speaking in public, organizing a presentation, and fielding questions from an audience.
  • Help students understand what an effective presentation is by watching videos of presentations or speeches and analyzing them with a rubric, or ask students to develop a set of criteria.
Creativity and Innovation
  • Teach students how to brainstorm effectively by having them practice in fun challenges such as “How many improvements could you think of for a doghouse?” or “What ideas can you come up with for new smartphone app that gets people to think creatively?”
  • Have students practice divergent thinking by describing an issue in the community and asking them to suggest all the people who could be affected by it, or give students a “big idea” question and ask them to think of all the possible answers to it (“What is worth fighting for?” or “What is a healthy community?”)

One important final note: in addition to building students’ skills for PBL, it’s important to build the culture for PBL in your classroom—more on that topic coming soon!

John is an education consultant and writer. He was the editor in chief at PBLWorks for many years.