Powerfu Projects - Learning Through Projects - Project-Based Learning

April 2017

Woodham Middle School • Escambia County School District • Pensacola, Florida

Students are hungry for learning that matters, which is why some of the best learning projects set out to make a dent in the universe. That dent might be big or small, but knowing their projects are making a difference in the world is great motivation for students to push themselves toward deeper learning. Adding twists, novelty, and variety to the project can make the whole experience irresistible! 

Tony uses Mentimeter.com to conduct polls and create live word clouds. You can use it too!


Let students own the task and put their personal spin on it.

Justin Bell's students created a comical version of Romeo and Juliet Act 3. See more of Justin's students' tech projects.

Want to make green screen videos? Check out DoInk Green Screen or Touchcast Studio for iOS.

Ownership in empowering! Having psychological ownership over the project can increase feelings of responsibility, attachment, accountability, and confidence.  

The above video was made using Adobe Spark Video (web-based and iPad app). 

Psychological Ownership Causes

  • control
  • intimate knowledge
  • time and energy

Psychological Ownership Positive Outcomes

  • responsibility
  • attachment
  • accountability
  • confidence

The Ikea Effect is the name for the psychological phenomenon that occurs when consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created. Researchers found that when people use their own labor to construct a particular product, they value it more than if they didn’t put any effort into its creation.

Take advantage of the Ikea Effect, and let students create their own media as part of a project. Examples include a butterfly video by kindergarteners, The Respiratory System iBook by a fourth grader,  the Chow Checker app by middle schoolers.

Increase ownership by giving students choices in the content of their projects, the process the use to create them, and their end productions' final forms. 

“When we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome–by a factor of five to one.” Harvard Business Review

"If you assign a project and get back 30 of the exact same thing, that's not a project, that's a recipe." Chris Lehmann

It's good to a have choices in the apps students use to create projects because they often disappear, become costly, or drastically change. Keep in mind Adam Bellow's saying: "Date the tool and marry and ability."

Some Media Making Tools include Snapguide.com, MySimpleshow.com, and Spark.Adobe.com. Find more tools in the Show What You Know infographic.

Steve Jobs had the mantra, “Let’s make a dent in the universe.” He was on a mission to change the world. Some of the best projects set out to make a dent. The dent might be big or small, but at least the project has made a difference in the universe, and given students purpose beyond doing the project as just another graded assignment.

Projects can make a difference by...

  • educating others
  • solving a problem
  • calling people to action
  • building something useful
  • planning an event
  • raising money for a purpose
  • recognizing or inspiring others
  • designing a better way to do something

Jamie Rusynk’s 5th graders' video Think Before You Post has an important message. It's done with sticky notes and stop motion.

Stop the Shooting is a Public Service Annoucement made using and iMovie trailer template. Read about how Year 7/8 students created promotional videos for health with the help of iMovie Trailer Planners

Rushton Hurley makes the observation, “If students are sharing their work with the world, they want it to be good. It you’re just sharing it with you, they just want it to be good enough.” With websites and social media, students certainly have the ability to reach a potentially global audience. Knowing they can reach people worldwide with their projects, learners will want to make those productions W.O.W. (Worthy of the World).

Second graders at Willowdale Elementary School created an audio podcast about respect. It's one of dozens of episodes that seek to inform an audience on the web and in iTunes. The podcast's tagline is "Radio for Kids, by Kids." Radio WillowWeb used GarageBand for audio recording, but there are lots of alternatives like online-voice-recorder.comsoundation.com, soundtrap.com, and twistedwave.com.

Book and product reviews have an audience–other potential readers and buyers. Consider having students write reviews for Amazon.com.

Each day one student in Tony Vincent's fifth grade is designated at the roving reporter (or class scribe). His or her job is to write about the learning that happens that day. The reporter takes photos throughout the day and selects a few to include with the article. Reviewing photos can also help the reporter decide what to write about. Probably the best way to publish these article are on a blog. Tony didn't have a blog, but he did publish the articles on The Daily Planet.

Create elegant webpages for an audience using Adobe Spark Page (iPad & web)) or Office Sway (all platforms). Read about Shelli Thele's Revolutionary War project that uses Adobe Spark Page, and then read Tony's post about this awesome app. Check out this collection of Office Sway projects by students.

Tag Twitter posts with student projects with #comments4kids so that students can get feedback on what they shared.

A driving question captures the heart of the project by providing purpose using clear and compelling language. With so many different flavors of project based learning (including problem based learning, challenge based learning, student centered learning, exploration, student driven inquiry, and authentic learning), it’s not surprising that we have a variety of other terms for a question or statement that is the project’s driving force. These terms include essential question, challenge, prime question, WILD HOG question, focus question, and smart question. I’ll stick with driving question, but do know that sometimes the driving question is not interrogative. It might be a statement, but I’ll still refer to is as a question.

Driving questions pose simply stated real world dilemmas. They pose predicaments that students find interesting and actually want to answer. The question drives students to discuss, inquire, and investigate the topic. It should push them toward a production or solution. In the process of investigating the question and sharing their answers, students learn important content and skills.  

Types of Questions

There’s an art to developing driving questions, because there isn’t a specific formula you must follow. Though, you can find some examples and structures to help you out. Below are some types of driving questions. Maybe some of these will be the spark that inspires you write your next driving question.

📐 Solve a Problem: There’s a real-world predicament with multiple solutions.

  • How can we stop phantom traffic jams?
  • How can we beautify the vacant lot across the street for $200?
  • What’s the best way to stop the flu at our school?
  • Design a better lunch menu for our school.
  • Design a safe and sturdy bridge to replace one in our city.

🎓 Educational: The purpose of the project is to teach others.

  • How can we teach second graders about helpful insects.
  • Create a campaign to teach senior citizens how to use an iPad.
  • What do the students at our school need to know about being respectful?

👍 Convince Others: Students persuade a specified audience to do something or change their opinions.

  • Create a public service announcement (PSA) that persuades teens to drink more water.
  • Drive yourself to define a question and then Prove It to your classmates.
  • Convince grocery shoppers to return their shopping carts.
  • How can we convince our principal that we should have a party in December?

🌏 Broad Theme: The project tackles big ideas.

  • What does it mean to read?
  • How does conflict lead to change?
  • How does math influence art?
  • How do writers persuade others?
  • How are good and evil depicted in different cultures?

💬 Opinion: Students need to consider all sides of an issue in order to form and justify their opinions.

  • Should pets be allowed to attend class?
  • Why has a woman never been a U.S. president?
  • What makes a good astronaut?

🚥 Divergent: Students make predictions about alternative timelines and scenarios.

  • What if Rosa Parks gave up her seat?
  • What if the world ran out of oil tomorrow?
  • How might your city change if the climate became an average of 10°F warmer?
  • What if the USA switched to the metric system?

🚀 Scenario-Based: Students take on a fictional role with a mission to accomplish.

  • You’re a NASA engineer, and you are in charge of building a moon base. What are the ten most important things to include and why?
  • Imagine that you are King George. What would you have done differently to keep American part of England?
  • You are the CEO of a company that is designing a new social media app. Present a business plan to your investors that explains how your company will make money.
  • You’ve been hired to revamp your local shopping mall. Come up with a plan to increase business.
  • How would you spend $1,000,000 to help your community?

🚧 Scaffolded Around Framing Words: BIE has a tool to help you develop driving questions called a Tubric. It provides possible framing words, actions, audience, and purpose. If you’d rather not take the time to construct a tube, you could use Rhoni McFarlane’s Developing Inquiry Questions chart, Amy Mayer’s Scaffold for Writing a Driving Question, or TeachThought's PBL Cheat Sheet.

  • How can I create a campaign to reduce bullying in my school? (from Rhoni McFarlane)
  • How can we find a solution to reduce the litter in our school permanently? (also from Rhoni McFarlane)
  • How can we as first graders create geocaching sites to promote physical fitness in our neighborhood? (from Washington Discovery Academy)

Refining the Question

Driving questions are rarely perfect after the first draft. There are usually ways you can make them better. Talking a driving question over with colleagues, asking on social media, and putting it past your students can help you get insight into how well the question will drive a project.

A driving question shouldn’t sound like a question students would find on a test. Instead of “Describe what organisms need to survive,” the question could be “What if we had a chicken house at our school?” And, “Why did the American colonists declare war with England?” could be reworked into, “How could you have convinced American colonists to support independence using today’s technology?” Making your question appealing to students is probably the most difficult part of crafting a question. Keep in mind, a question that is captivating to you might not be to your students.

Below is a checklist to help you refine your question. You might not be able to check off all the items, but the more the merrier!

👌 The question is appealing to students.
🗜 The question is concise.
 💦 The question has no easy answer.
 😍 The question taps into students’ interests and passions.
 💤 The question does not sound like a test question.
 💗 The question leads to more questions.
 🔀 There is more than one answer to the question.
 🔰 The topic is personal or local.
🏡 Students can relate to the question in their daily lives.
🤔  Students will have choices for end products.
 💬 There is an authentic audience for the project.
🕵️‍♀️ The question requires serious investigation.
 ℹ️ Students will learn important skills and content.
💥 The project will somehow make a difference in the world.

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Technology can be helpful throughout a project, whether students use iPads, Chromebooks, Android tablets, laptops, or desktops. Tony Vincent has written a primer for each of the three major components of project based learning. He shares useful websites and apps as he tells you about his take on project based learning. They are Crafting Questions That Drive Projects, Investigating Authentic Questions, and Creating Products to Show and Share Learning.


Crafting Questions That Drive Projects

Projects begin with a driving question–an open-ended question that sets the stage for the project by generating interest and curiosity. It captures the heart of the project by providing purpose using clear and compelling language.

Investigating Authentic Questions

In project based learning students answer a driving question. That question is so deep that it leads students to ask more and more questions. I have lots of strategies and tips for investigating answers to those questions.

Creating Products to Show and Share Learning

Let’s take a look at sample projects and some of the hottest apps for showing, explaining, and retelling. These tools can turn students into teachers and are great for sharing their answers to a project’s driving question.