Project Based Planning & Embracing the KNOWN

There are a lot of unknowns when crafting a new project based learning opportunity for students. In fact, student choice and the selection of problem that doesn’t have a defined solution is largely what makes PBL great AND what makes it daunting and full of unknowns for teachers. A team of teachers – Zach, T.J., and Robin – are getting the band back together for a second iteration of an interdisciplinary PBL project, and we are choosing to embrace the KNOWN rather than get tripped up by the inevitable unknown. We’ve learned from missteps (and wins) from our bike project last fall, and are more thoughtfully approaching our assistive technology themed version of the project for Fall 2016. I’ll be honest, a lot of our plan for last year’s project happened rather serendipitously. We got lucky on several elements of the project from finding the right colleagues to work with to how different class schedules aligned. Once we sat down together things clicked relatively easily, but we also acknowledged that the planning work won’t always be that way. Zach has developed a beautiful PBL planning tool that helps capture some of those serendipitous moments and recreate some of the “magic” that contributed to what was ultimately a successful project. Below are the elements that we feel are important to consider when planning for an interdisciplinary PBL project.


Communication: Channels of communication will hold your interdisciplinary project together. Consider the frequency and mode of communication that will be necessary between each of the classes (and teachers) involved.


Content: Brainstorm the project-related activities and events that will take place in each class involved. Bonus points if you can craft events that can incorporate more than one class at the same time!


Discovery and Empathy: Particularly when embarking on a project with a long duration or significant collaboration with other courses (or both), a strong hook can be the key to success – it can help sustain student engagement over the long term, and begin to bridge the classroom to the rest of the world. Consider items that fit into some of the categories on the “Discovery and Empathy” tool that might be part of a “launch event” for your project.


Point of Origin: Strong interdisciplinary project design is built on two pillars: meaningful content connection and implementation by teachers who collaborate effectively. A fantastic final product idea or an engaged colleague can be the starting point for an entire project framework. One often leads to the other. Brainstorm on the “Point of Origin” page starting with whichever box is easiest for you to approach.

Point of Origin

Range Finding: At the opposite end of the project arc from the “launch event” is the ending event, which and also be a motivator for student engagement and provide closure to the project experience. Consider the range of events that might be possible for your project. Think about the products the students might produce (the “what”), who might be the right audience for such a product (the “who”), and what kind of space/resources would be necessary to facilitate such an event (the “where”). Open yourself to wildly optimistic possibilities, and then decide what your team is comfortable aiming for.

Range Finding

Rules of the Road: An interdisciplinary project can be demanding for all teachers involved, and requires all faculty to consider their professional needs and expectations. Have all faculty participants through their needs (for communication, organization, clarity, privacy, control over class time, etc.), and keep those limits in mind as you design the project. Record non-negotiables on the “Rules of the Road” page.

Rules of the Road
This is the big one – think about the possibilities and constraints that grow from all the other cards, and try to plot out the events (launch and ending events, as well as key activities in each of the classes) on the schedule page.


 Thanks to Zach for an incredible visualization of the steps we went through in our own planning process. However, there is not a direct download of these made available here. Why? Because we know it is not perfect and we know your own school or situation might require some tweaks. We want to invite you to tinker and hack with these tools to best fit your situation. How about getting students involved in your planning? The video below is feedback captured from students involved in our bike project. Their feedback directly influenced how we thought about this year’s version of the project as well as this planning tool. If you come up with your own ideas, edits, hacks, we’d love to for you to show and tell in the comments section.

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