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by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

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Topic tags: Gold Standard


March 14, 2016
Gold Standard PBL: Managing Activities

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

If you walk into a classroom during a project, what you see could vary a lot by the day or the time within a class period. It could sometimes look like a traditional classroom, with students sitting at desks doing individual work and the teacher standing in front, talking. You might hear a whole-class discussion taking place. At other times, you’d see students working in teams, or sharing work with each other for feedback, or using tech tools to communicate with outside experts and create products or presentations. On some projects, you would find the classroom empty, because students and teacher are out doing field work or visiting someplace in the community.

It’s these last two scenarios that can give some teachers pause about PBL. Teachers who are used to traditional instructional methods know how to manage a classroom when they’re directing a lesson, supervising individual assignments, or leading a discussion. But managing the varied and more team-based, lively activities found in a project might seem daunting to teachers new to PBL. But as is true with assessing student learning, another of the Project Based Teaching Practices in our model for Gold Standard PBL, managing activities during a project combines the familiar with the new.

I discussed the practice of managing activities in PBL on a recent hangout with three of BIE’s National Faculty members, Ian Stevenson, Angela Marzilli, and James Fester. When BIE was creating our list of Project Based Teaching Practices, we considered other words as alternatives to “managing” to describe what a teacher does to keep a project flowing smoothly toward completion. We considered facilitating, conducting, or guiding, because all are applicable in some sense, and we wanted to capture the spirit of independence and inquiry you can feel in a good project-based environment. We wondered if “managing” implied too much control by the teacher.

But as Ian points out, the word “managing” connects to the real-world practice of “project management” which definitely applies to what happens during a project. And the key, Angela emphasized, is to turn over to students as much of the project management as possible. Learning how to manage people, time, tasks, and the learning process is a valuable skill that’s required in the world outside of school, so PBL provides the perfect opportunity to build it.

In general, we agreed that there is no “typical” flow of activities in PBL classroom. There is definitely more independent work time for students, during which a teacher can roam the room doing informal assessments and coaching student performance, or meet with teams. Older students tend to be able to work for longer periods of time on their own, perhaps even an entire 80-minute block. Younger students will need to be given only, say, 15 minute chunks of worktime, broken up by activities like sharing work with each other and the teacher, or by a new lesson, resource, or scaffold, followed by another chunk of worktime.

You’ll have to watch the hangout to hear and see more details about the projects described by our guests, but here are some more tips they offered for managing activities in PBL:

  • Have a “project wall” on display in the classroom – or readily accessible online – as a visual reminder of where students are in the project, and use it for check-in discussions with students. Display project artifacts and resources such as rubrics, product requirements, lists of questions for inquiry, and a project calendar.
  • Teach students routines, procedures, and protocols for managing their work, using time effectively, and giving and receiving critique.
  • Set clear expectations for project worktime – which can be co-decided by students and the teacher. Specify what the result of worktime ought to be, and hold students accountable. For example, they might need to report out to the whole group, display their work for feedback in a gallery walk, or be ready with comments and questions about a reading.
  • Having roles within student teams can allow a teacher to meet with some students on a staggered basis, allowing the teams to continue working. For example, all the “design engineers” can meet on one day, and all “project managers” meet the next.
  • Be ready for students to come up with good ideas for managing themselves that you might not have considered. For example, James described how one of his middle-school students wrote on a whiteboard, visible on her desk, to explain what she was doing -- so he knew not to bother her to ask, “what are you working on?”
  • If a project is getting away from you and lasting too long (with a hint of aimlessness), it often means it wasn’t planned with enough checkpoints when “everyone has to be ready.”
  • Default to over-planning, not under-planning; you can always release more self-management to students, but it’s hard to get it back if the project is stalled or students are getting lost.

To conclude our conversation, Ian provided a nice metaphor for the role of the teacher when managing activities in PBL: You’re more often a “weather reporter with constant updates,” and only occasionally introducing a “breaking news segment.” Angela reminded viewers about the importance of the process in PBL; take the time to teach students how to manage a project. On a related note, James said, “trust your students, they’re capable and it’s amazing what they can do.”


Do you have tips about managing activities in PBL, or questions or comments? Please enter them below.


  • I really like the metaphor for the role of the teacher when managing activities in PBL: “You’re more often a weather reporter with constant updates”, and only occasionally introducing a “breaking news segment.” Also, give more responsibility to the students and teach them to manage their project.

    VAGNOZZI on March 29, 2016 
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