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by Ian Stevenson
National Faculty

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Topic tags: project management, how to do PBL


March 25, 2014
Project Management - The Devil is in the Differentiation!

by Ian Stevenson
National Faculty

(This post originally appeared on PBL Connections.)

11th grade US History students high-fiving, fist-bumping after a US Constitution assessment? Yep. Shouting “We owned that!” after a high-stakes history presentation? Yep. We have all seen the smiles, confidence, and pride that fills students after a PBL presentation where the audience was left with their jaws on the floor and no ideas for questions. I have seen that same pride in the Special Education student who earned his first “A” in English with the script he wrote for the Psychology movie that explains Tourettes Syndrome. Students earned it, but don’t forget all the work that it took the teacher to get them there. The hours spent in the classroom, and outside of it, managing the learning and behaviors of 30 different kids like a herd of wild cats.



My best moments of PBL project management are when I am able to let go of expectations for what engaged student learning looks like. If I try to control the learning environment too much the students lose ownership of the learning. It becomes too much like “school,” where students spend the majority of the time listening to the teacher.

The best PBL management involves high expectations for student learning AND open expectations for what good teaching and engaged learning looks like. PBL has some specific management techniques that allow the controlled chaos of a project to be meaningful and productive: team meetings, team rep meetings, and a self-service classroom.

1. Team meetings: Meet with each team for at least 10 -15 minutes at key points during the project. This will take a couple of days if you have 6 - 8 teams in a class, but the time investment is worth it. I have a space in my room away from the rest of the class with comfortable table and chairs to have these team check-ins. This shift of space implies a shift of focus. It reminds me that my most powerful work is done through listening. And for students it shifts focus to the purpose of their time - learning.

I am able to hear the unique learning and challenges that students are having and respond to those immediately (or at least the next day). I also review upcoming project expectations. This creates effective differentiation in the moment, rather than having to plan a differentiated lesson. The teaching is very powerful because it responds to the needs that the students are having right then. Be sure to take any notes about where the teams are in the project, resources they need, or comments about their lack of progress. This is key formative assessment information that can be part of a Work Ethic or Collaboration grade. Also, be sure to follow through on what you say you will do to support the students. Trust building is a part of all good project management.

The rest of the class needs to be clear on what the expectations are while you are meeting with each team. Also realize that the energy level, movement, and student ability to focus will change through out the rest of the class time. Don’t respond to every chat, movement, laughter, or phone that you see. Let your students know that you trust them with this time because you trust that they will learn. And if they don’t - they might get called out in a presentation with some really hard questions, or at least in their next team meeting with you!

2. Team Rep meetings: This is almost the opposite of the Team meeting, where you meet with only 1 person from each team. If the class has 7 teams then you meet with the 7 team reps all at the same time. This is a powerful PBL management tool for several reasons. First, you only need to get the attention of a handful of students, explain the expectations for the next chunk of class time, and have them go back to their teams and explain what to do. Which in a PBL class might be to prep their comments/responses for the upcoming fishbowl, or silently read a piece of text and highlight sections they have questions/wonders about, or prepare their reflection and task lists for the team meetings that will begin in 10 minutes. Secondly, the team rep meetings support the culture of high expectation and trust in the class. You expect the team reps to explain the info to their team, and hold them accountable if they don’t. If the team is still not functioning on the next check-in, have them explain why not so you can address how to best help them.

This is also powerful teaching because it allows you to watch and assess how different teams are doing in their collaborative learning. I keep a clip board and notes about how quickly each group gets into the task at hand, which ones need praise for meeting the on-task expectation, and which ones might need some redirecting conversation. Allow enough time for students to get into the task and then assess (get the whole class attention and ask) which groups have a “burning desire” (as I call it in my class!) to talk with or ask me questions, and go to them first. This allows you to go to the area of greatest need and respond to it first. Sounds like powerful differentiation as well, doesn’t it?

3. Make your class space as self-service as possible: Take time at the beginning of the year to set the culture that the students can take care of themselves and get what they need for their learning. As students get better (trained) at knowing how to act appropriately in the class space, your teaching is more powerful. You can pay attention to the important things like responding to questions, having deep conversations with individuals or teams, or even giving a short lecture because the students have asked for that information in the Need to Know list.

If students see a handout in a specific place as they enter the class they know to get it and start checking it. They know to go to the daily agenda on Edmodo (or whatever LMS you might use). Many times I do not start with a whole class attention-getter and check-in. If the expectations are clear, a self-service culture exists, and students are starting on task, there is no need to interrupt them and explain what they have already started! And you can get right into the powerful teaching of team meetings, team rep meetings, or giving that favorite lecture of yours which students have said they want to hear.

Project Based Learning is a unique approach to learning that involves some new tricks and changed behavior of teachers. If you are willing to keep trying just like you expect of your students, your project management skills and toolbox will grow. What successes have you had?


  • These three suggestions work wonders in a Game-based learning or gamified classroom as well. I love the Team Rep meeting strategy.

    DebraRook on July 23, 2015 
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