Sunsetting Projects

How often do we talk with students about the end of the project, beyond just its due date? About what happens to the work they’ve done once the due date has passed? What happens to the “learning residue”?

Do students see the end of a project as the moment that they get their grade, or when the project has stopped serving its purpose? Are these two moments different? If they are, should they be?

Sunsetting as a natural part of the project lifecycle

Over the summer, I had a great conversation with a relative about his work supporting local Boy Scouts with their community-based Eagle Scout Projects. What captivated me the most was the amount of planning that a Scout was required to do prior to even beginning to take out shovels and hammers. And that planning just wasn’t about fundraising, drawing blueprints, and which community leaders they were going to talk with. It was also about planning for the years that would come well after the commemorative plaque had been put up and the Eagle Ceremony was over.

This fascinated me because the level of planning that went into the end-of-life portion of the project seemed to be just as detailed and extensive as the ideation and execution portions. Such has not been my experience with school projects… ones I’ve personally designed or ones I’ve seen other teachers design.

I’ve been to numerous schools where raised garden beds lay abandoned in courtyards; green-roof prototypes have long been forgotten atop a building; sun-faded posters hang on the wall; murals crack and speckle as paint chips off of them. In their infancy, these projects undoubtedly caught the enthusiasm and energy of the students and the teachers so much that they decided to make their ideas a reality. But as they aged, either in months or years, that luster dulled a bit… until they lacked any sparkle at all that could catch someone’s eye. Eventually, they simply became an eyesore and no one could even recall how they came to be at the school in the first place. The project artifacts became learning residue, while the learning experience that generated them could no longer be told… or no one wanted to tell.

At some point during my non-teaching career in telecommunications, I learned the phrase “sunsetting”. This referred to when a product was no longer going to be created or supported by a manufacturer; in our case, it was often a particular model of phone system or alarm system component. We also used it when we were no longer going to work on a particular project for a customer and we were going to either turn the equipment over to them, replace the equipment with something newer, or simply remove the equipment with no replacement plans. Sunsetting was a natural part of our work as contractors and support personnel.

Later on, like in the process of searching for pictures to use in this post… 🙂

…I came along something called the project life cycle.

In a nutshell, the project life cycle has four phases:

  1. The Initiation or Conceptualization Phase
  2. The Planning Phase
  3. The Execution Phase
  4. Project Closure or Termination Phase

There is an entire phase of the process that is dedicated to the end of the project. What happens at the end is intentionally thought about and planned for in advance.

The final phase of a project is often overlooked

Another graphic I found in my search yielded this interesting timeline. It shows the total level of effort, or energy, required on the part of those implementing the project during each phase of the cycle.

I say this particular chart is interesting because of a variety of reasons. One reason is that the line seems to mimic the energy students and teacher have when working through a project, particularly in a PBL setting. The typical end of the project usually involves events like assessment and reflection. But with so much energy spent leading up to the execution, factors like waning motivation, time constraints, and pressure to “get back to what we’ve usually been doing in class” start to pile up. The combined weight of these factors leads to some event, most often reflection, to take on a modified look – or to become absent altogether. Energy level drops, and consequently so does effort.

Another interesting observation from the chart is the alternate name for the Termination Phase… Transfer Phase. This simple change creates a new way of thinking about the end of a project because it no longer has to be about ending. It can be about “transferring responsibility”. When a marking period ends, or a unit has completed, or the school year has finished – or any other arbitrary time frame that learning is boxed into – students and teachers can talk about what has to happen next with the work that they’ve done so far. Do they need to set up some way for the next class to pick up where they have left off? Do they need to think about how they are going to check in with the people that they’ve completed the project for because they’ve turned it over to them? Or do they need to think about how the project has closed and that they need to collect their learning residue? In any case, the end of the project cycle has been intentionally thought about.

Sunsetting and Transfer creates new possibilities

When transferring responsibility is part of the project, new possibilities for the life of a project exist. The raised garden beds become a data collection hub that students can study over time based on experiments in crop rotation, or fertilization techniques. Experiments in genetics, similar to those done by Gregor Mendel and his pea plants, can be recreated over longer periods of time. Green-roof experiments can be tracked and expanded upon as they are duplicated on other buildings on campus, with yearly changes in weather accounted for in their analysis. Posters can become part of a digital museum that serves to inspire, or dissuade, the next set of student work. Murals become a tradition where the impact or genesis of previous displays are tracked, and techniques that worked or didn’t work are shared from one class to the next. No doubt, even more possibilities for these projects exist, but the key is that those possibilities have to have been thought about early in the process, while effort and energy reserves are at their highest.

Admittedly, creating something new is almost always more fun and exciting than maintaining something pre-existing. Leaving ones’ fingerprints on shiny new things has more thrill to it than just adding prints to things with a slightly duller sheen. But there is a certain responsibility that learning-experience-designers must have towards recognizing the authenticity and importance of the projects that they ask students to engage in. If you aren’t thinking about the end of the project – what happens when they are “done” – are you just giving those students something to keep them busy? If the work is so important that you are making it part of your class, are you backing that choice up by making sure that the work students did lives on, or has served its purpose? It won’t take long for students to see the inauthenticity of a project if the only impact they realize they are going to make is on their GPA. If we are truly thinking about the real-life work that we want our students to engage in, then we need to be doing the real-life work involved in that project’s life cycle… specifically the end of the cycle.

Or maybe moving the end of the life cycle out further is what is needed.

Sunsetting a phase to kick-start iteration

What if projects were designed with multiple sets of students being involved, over multiple periods of time? The projects this year’s 8th graders are working on, are the ones this year’s 7th graders will pick up next school year. Next semester’s art students will continue the work of this semester’s students. Again, if we are talking about real-world work, the real world talks about work in terms of multiple years: In Year 1 we’ll do this… In Year 2 we’ll do that… And based on those years, we anticipate that Year 3 will need…

Heck, even when a new school is being built, or a strategic plan is being rolled out, school leaders talk about those projects over “years of implementation.” So why don’t we talk like that in our classrooms with students?

Maybe there needs to be another blade added to the Gold Standard PBL irises that the Buck Institute for Education has created. A new element for both the project design and the teaching practices, perhaps. Something in the methodology of PBL needs to concretely address the end of the project in terms of what becomes of the project when it is “done” – whatever “done” means for that specific project. Perhaps then, the sunsetting of a project will be the spectacular evening event that so many people stop to look at, and say, “Wow! That’s amazing!”


By Jim Tiffin Jr. (Cross-posted on my personal blog, Building Capacity)

Image Credits:






The “Standard” Project Life Cycle from Mavenlink post “What is the Project Life Cycle?






Project Life Cycle – Four Basic Phases from MaxWideman.com post “The Project Life Cycle: Four Basic Phases






BIE Gold Standard Aperatures from Curriculum Decisions post “Project-Based Learning

Images in this post, but not shown in the Image Credits section, are my own.

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