Project-Based Learning Blog

Consortium offers April training program in Project-Based Learning

Our Project-Based Learning (PBL) team will offer a virtual opportunity to learn the basics of PBL beginning Tuesday, April 20th and continuing for half days on Tuesdays through May 11th.

The program will focus on the 10 design elements of PBL, with a goal of giving participants the baseline understanding needed to take the methodology into their classrooms.

More information and registration are available on EventBrite.


Is PBL the Best Way to Teach?”

By Aaron Altemus

Short answer:  Sometimes.

Also:  It depends.

When teaching trinomials:  Probably not.  

And quite honestly:  This question is irrelevant and should be relegated to the PBL discourse trash bin.  

I apologize, folks; today’s post is a bit of a rant because I just read this question in yet another article debating the merits of PBL, and here’s my frustration:  

This is simply not a useful question to ask.  Teaching, like most other professions, requires nuance, reflection, well-honed skills, structures, and the strategic deployment of tools and knowledge.  Asking whether or not PBL is the best way to teach is akin to asking whether or not a hammer is the best tool for building a house.  

To dig deeper, let’s do a little reflective exercise that flips our perspective to learning:  Think back on this past week and consider all of your activities, whether professional, domestic, or leisurely.  In all of those experiences throughout the week, how did you learn new skills and information?  How did you demonstrate your learning?  Was it always the same?  Was there one way that was “the best?”  

Here’s kind of a micro example from my own life:  Working with one of our school partners, I was recently tasked with designing several new data-tracking spreadsheets; I’d done similar work in the past, but the current request required quite a few upgrades in terms of my knowledge and understanding.  So to accomplish this task, I:

  • Revisited past work (activated prior knowledge).
  • Read many web forum posts about spreadsheet formats.
  • Searched for and examined other spreadsheet designs online to spark inspiration.
  • Watched YouTube videos to learn how to execute new spreadsheet functions.
  • Experimented with a variety of formulas.
  • Failed (a lot).
  • Got stuck on one particular formula and asked my wife for help (direct instruction!)
  • Created multiple designs to compare ideas.
  • Shared my work with my colleagues to get valuable feedback.
  • Revised my work to incorporate my colleagues’ thinking.
  • Shared with our school partners, building their input into a final design.

And now, imagine if someone asked me, “What is the best way to teach someone how to create spreadsheets?”  Do you think I would give them one definitive answer?  If I only did one of these things, I wouldn’t have nearly the depth of understanding that I can now extend to new projects in the future.  

Project-based learning is like a multi-tool in your toolbox; it has a lot of value and versatility in a classroom, but it’s not going to be the tool for every situation. The reality is there are many different strategies that you can use to build better instruction.  But teaching and learning isn’t like March Madness.  We’re not going to eventually bracket our way to some Ultimate Instructional Approach that works across all contexts, for every student, or for all subject matter.  To frame PBL (or any instructional tool) in that way, is to take the focus away from what’s really important–how might we best support each unique student’s thinking, learning, and thriving, each and every day?  

Let’s start asking that question instead.  


Two Design Methods to Bring Students’ Ideas to Life (Part VI of a series)

By Aaron Altemus

This is my last post in a series on the valuable role that design thinking plays in bringing project-based learning to life in the classroom.  I’ve talked about methods for research, brainstorming, feedback, and collaborative decision-making; in this final post, I’ll discuss two methods that help students develop and communicate their PBL ideas so that they can refine, iterate, and ultimately design their best work.

Method #1:  Concept Posters and Pitches

I’ve talked about this before, but hey, it can’t hurt to drive the point home:  Students often leapfrog from answering the PBL driving question and go straight to developing their final product or presentation.  But doing so means they miss out the really valuable experience of brainstorming, sharing, and gathering feedback.  Concept posters and pitches offer a great way to help your students pump the breaks on PBL solutions, while also encouraging them to think deeply about their ideas and their communication of those ideas.  

A concept poster captures the essential elements of a product, service, or experience–typically including details like budgets, timelines, processes, benefits, and potential challenges.  It’s visual, structured, and requires students to dig into the initial details of their ideas.  This is not a multi-page slide deck, but one single poster; but the space constraints are part of the design, requiring students to choose which information is most important to share, communicating specifics concisely.

A well-designed concept poster can communicate a lot on its own, but posters pair well with quick energized pitch sessions!  Like many design methods, establish how much time students will have to share their ideas (usually only a minute or two), and really lean into the persuasive nature of the pitch.  We find its important to model this type of high-energy presentation beforehand, and encourage using humor, props, and audience participation to up the fun-factor.  

Check out our explainer video to learn how this method works in practice.  

Method #2:  Prototyping

I know, this isn’t really a design method so much as an entire phase of design, but there are just too many forms of prototyping to describe them all here.  That said, prototypes are another tool for communication and testing of ideas; they’re tangible creations that other people can see, touch, or otherwise engage with, and offer up yet another opportunity for students to receive feedback.  

Prototypes also give students a chance to test-drive their ideas in a low-stakes environment, encouraging rapid iteration as opposed to nailing a design on the very first try.  Prototypes come in all shapes and sizes and could be drafts, models, sketches, schematics, outlines, cardboard mockups, simulations–you name it.  

To explore the wild world of prototyping, check out this explainer video!

Three Design Methods to Guide Student Decision-Making (Part V of a series)

By Aaron Altemus

A few weeks ago I began writing about the impact that design thinking can have on project-based learning, particularly in terms of taking PBL from theory to actual classroom practice.  In this post, I’ll share three design methods that encourage convergent thinking, or determining which ideas are best suited to solve a given problem.  Be sure to check out the explainer videos for step-by-step tutorials!

Method #1: The Bullseye Framework

This method sounds just like its name:  Create a bullseye with three rings, and label each ring with a level of priority.  The key here is creating rings that present spatial constraints–for example, if students are using sticky notes, make sure that the bullseye center is only big enough to accommodate a few sticky note ideas.  By limiting the number of ideas that can fit in each priority ring, students must debate and determine which ideas are most important, feasible, or impactful for their work.  

Here’s what you’ll need (for in-person):

  • Sticky notes
  • A whiteboard or a sheet of flip chart paper
  • Markers/pens

If you’re working virtually, you can upload an image of a bullseye to your favorite virtual whiteboard and use the same process.

Check out our explainer video to see a step-by-step guide to using the bullseye in your classroom.

Method #2:  Dot Voting

Next up is another rather literal (and versatile) method that can be used in most collaborative decision-making scenarios.  In this case, students use stickers to cast simultaneous votes; using stickers helps to quickly visualize consensus, and voting all at the same time eliminates bias and influence.  You can use dot voting when debating ideas, comparing concepts, establishing class rules–you name it.  If you can post it up on a wall, you can use dots to vote on it!

Here’s what you’ll need (for in-person):

  • Stickers (you can use different colors to represent multiple votes)

If you’re working virtually, you can replicate this process using digital polls, upvoting, or even via document comments.  What matters most is timing the vote to occur all at one time!  

Like many design methods, dot voting is best understood visually; check out this explainer video to see this method in action.  

Method #3:  Importance/Effort Matrix

This is probably one of my all-time favorite methods for decision-making.  It’s a little complicated, so I might recommend this for secondary students only.  That said, the importance/effort matrix is high-powered and really fun to explore.  

The Y-axis on the matrix represents importance or impact; the X-axis represents the effort required to actually implement an idea.  So–students begin by ranking their ideas in terms of their potential impact on the driving question, with the most valuable ideas ranked on the far right of their matrix.  Then, working together, they must determine how much effort it will take to actually implement each idea.  This can be an eye-opening process for students because they have to come to practical terms with the reality of each of their ideas; what sounds good on paper might take a ton of effort to actually do.  

Once students have plotted each idea on the matrix, they’ll be able to see which ideas represent low-hanging opportunities; which might be more strategic; which ideas are their best investment of time and energy; and which ones might just be wishful thinking.  

If you’re looking for a highly structured way to facilitate decision-making for your student groups, this method is a necessity in your toolbox.  

Here’s what you’ll need (for in-person):

  • A white board or a few sheets of flip chart paper
  • Sticky notes
  • Markers

If you’re working virtually, I recommend uploading a matrix image to a virtual whiteboard and facilitating the process from there.  

To see how the importance/effort matrix could function in your classroom, check out this explainer video.  


Three Design Methods to Spark Student Brainstorming (Part III of a series)

By Aaron Altemus

A few weeks ago I began writing about the impact that design thinking can have on project-based learning, particularly in terms of taking PBL from theory to actual classroom practice.  In this post, I’ll share three design methods that encourage divergent thinking, or broad brainstorming.  Be sure to check out the explainer videos for step-by-step tutorials!

Method #1:  Round-Robin Brainstorming

Round-Robin is a great entry-level design method that you can expand as students get more comfortable in their brainstorming sessions.  This method embraces time limits, proximity, and collaboration as tools for generating and refining new ideas.  While there are several different forms of Round-Robin, the process generally includes students jotting down ideas and passing sticky notes or sheets of paper from person to person around a table and rapidly generating ideas.  

Here’s what you’ll need (for in-person):

  • Sticky notes or sheets of paper
  • Markers/pens

If you’re working virtually, a digital whiteboard like Jamboard that allows for multiple boards, or ‘frames’ can help simulate the passing of sticky notes and handwritten papers.

Check out our explainer video to learn about three different ways to conduct a Round-Robin session.

Method #2:  The Lotus Blossom

The Lotus Blossom is a simple, but structured form of brainstorming that can yield as many as 72 unique ideas for solving a problem. 

Create a 9×9 grid; place your problem statement in the center, list a handful of initial solutions around the center center square; and then use the rest of the grid space to really explore whole deeper layers of thinking, particularly the ‘how’ of making a potential solution into a reality.  This is a great method for generating a ton of ideas while also digging into the details of problem-solving.

Here’s what you’ll need (for in-person):

  • A 9×9 grid with spaces large enough for sticky notes.
  • Sticky notes.
  • Markers.

If you’re working virtually, I recommend creating a 9×9 table in Google Docs or MS Word and then asking students to add ideas to the table just as you would in person.  

There are a lot of great strategies for conducting a successful interview; check out our explainer video to learn how this method works in practice.

Method #3:  Morphological Charts

This is maybe one of my all-time favorite design methods, simply because it encourages really wild, out-there kind of thinking.  The value of a morphological chart lies in its layered simplicity:  start with a table and a few simple category headers; then ask students to make lists under each category; they then connect ideas from each list to generate a new concept.  For example, if students were trying to design a new type of vehicle, you might create a table with these categories:  

  • Types of transportation
  • Reasons people use transportation
  • Amenities
  • Vehicle components

Students fill in as many ideas under each category and then make new, creative combinations for vehicle designs. 

 A morphological chart takes everyday ideas and mashes them together to form something truly unique.

Here’s what you’ll need (for in-person):

  • A white board or a few sheets of flip chart paper
  • Sticky notes
  • Markers

If you’re working virtually, I recommend creating a table in Google Docs or MS Word.

There are a lot of great strategies for conducting a successful interview; check out our explainer video to learn how this method works in practice.

Two Design Methods to Jumpstart Student Research (Part III of a series)

By Aaron Altemus

I recently began writing about the impact that design thinking can have on project-based learning, particularly in terms of  taking PBL from theory to actual classroom practice.  In this post, I’ll share two design methods that pair well together for student project research.  Be sure to check out the explainer videos for step-by-step tutorials! 

Method #1:  Stakeholder Mapping

Whenever students are trying to address a PBL challenge, they sometimes gravitate toward solutions without engaging with the folks who might be integral to getting the job done.  That authentic audience that we talk about so much in PBL may well include the very stakeholders invested in the issue at hand.  A stakeholder map helps identify the many different people that make up a community or system, as well as the relationships that they share between one another.  A stakeholder map creates a launchpad for students to learn from others as part of their project research.  

For example, let’s say that students are trying to reduce waste at their school; in order to dig into this challenge, they’ll probably need to figure out who the stakeholders are in that system so that they can determine the root issues and work together to find a solution.  In this case, the stakeholders might include the principal, food service workers, students, janitorial staff, science teachers, the food service director, etc.  Identifying all of these folks early on in the project process will unlock a world of opportunities for students expand their understanding of the challenge they are undertaking

Here’s what you’ll need (for in-person):

  • Sticky notes
  • Markers
  • Either flip chart paper or a whiteboard

If you’re working virtually, pretty much any virtual whiteboard will work, including Jamboard, Padlet, and MS Whiteboard.

Check out our explainer video to learn how this method works in practice.

Method #2:  Interviewing

Once students identify the stakeholders involved in their PBL challenge, one of the most valuable tools at their disposal is the interview; not the job interview-type-interview, but rather the ethnographer-asking-open-ended questions-to-empathize-and understand-another-person’s-experience-type interview.  I’m talking about having conversations with stakeholders as a way to learn deeply about their thoughts and experiences.  

Interviewing represents a robust means for students to learn directly from stakeholders while also building key soft skills like clear communication and active listening.  

Here’s what you’ll need (for in-person):

  • A few prepared questions to start the conversation.
  • A quiet space to talk.
  • A pen and paper for note-taking (or a computer/smartphone)
  • Recording equipment (if you want to get pretty serious with documentation)

If you’re working virtually, pretty much any video chat service will suffice, whether using Zoom, WebEx, or Google Meets.  

There are a lot of great strategies for conducting a successful interview; check out our explainer video to learn how this method works in practice.


Two Design Methods to Bolster Student Feedback Sessions (Part II of a series)

By Aaron Altemus

Last week I began writing about the impact that design thinking can have on project-based learning, particularly in terms of taking PBL from theory to actual classroom practice.  Here are two favorite methods to support the feedback and revision phase of your projects.  Be sure to check out the explainer videos for a step-by-step tutorial!

Method #1:  Rose, Thorn, Bud

Many design methods share similar characteristics:  they’re often highly visual, collaborative, and versatile.  Rose, Thorn, Bud is no exception.  Using color-coded sticky notes, participants share their thoughts using three lenses:  positives, negatives, and opportunities.  If working in groups, sticky notes can be posted in one space, allowing for quick visualization and synthesis.  Rose, Thorn, Bud can be applied to nearly any situation, from providing critique on an experience (like a field trip) to student work, novels, history…you name it!  

Here’s what you’ll need (for in-person):

  • Three differently-colored sticky notes
  • Markers
  • Either flip chart paper or a whiteboard

If you’re working virtually, pretty much any virtual whiteboard will work, including Jamboard, Padlet, and MS Whiteboard.

Check out our explainer video to learn how this method works in practice.

Method #2:  The Thinking Hats 

The Thinking Hats puts a unique spin on feedback by assigning each participant a particular ‘hat’ or lens through which to view an experience, product, or concept.  In our version, each participant assumes one of five hat personalities:  an optimist, a pessimist, a reporter (5 W’s), a person who only expresses gut reactions, and someone who makes suggestions.  By including all of these different ‘hats’, you can facilitate more balanced feedback; if you know your students well, it may also be helpful to strategically assign particular hats to encourage students to expand their thinking or to head-off a participant who is particularly prone to one type of thinking.  

Here’s what you’ll need (for in-person):

  • Five differently-colored sticky notes
  • Markers
  • Table/wall space to post and share ideas

Again, if you’re working virtually, pretty much any virtual whiteboard will work, including Jamboard, Padlet, and MS Whiteboard.

Check out our explainer video to see how this method works in practice.



Design Thinking:  Bridging the Gap in PBL Theory & Practice (Part I of a series)

By Aaron Altemus

Project-based learning always sounds great in theory.  But as many of us know, it doesn’t actually stick when it comes time to change instruction. 

One reason is that we often don’t bridge the gap between theory and actual practice.  

The first time I learned about PBL, I was sold.  Period.  And then I had no idea what to do next.  I envisioned a world where students are motivated problem-solvers, enthusiastically tackling complex questions and coming up with dazzling solutions.  But I lacked the knowledge and understanding to facilitate the elements of PBL that make this type of learning a reality:  feedback, collaboration, brainstorming, reflection, research–even crafting the right driving question.  

But then a few years later I was fortunate enough to receive training in design thinking and everything just clicked. For years I’d treated activities like feedback and brainstorming as if they were magical activities that just occur–that students would simply find the right words to provide balanced critique, or that students would conjure great ideas out of the ether.  Design thinking offered me the tools and processes to put PBL into action.

So what is design thinking?    

IDEO, one of the world leaders in design, refers to design thinking as a “mindset” as well as a “human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit.”  This mindset encompasses the tenets of effective design:  empathy, clear problem-definition, dynamic ideation, prototyping, and testing of solutions.  If we want to make informed, effective decisions or develop solutions that will have real impact, these phases of design are essential.  

The designer’s toolkit that IDEO refers to is actually an ever-growing collection of hundreds of structured, step-by-step methods developed by designers around the world over the last century.  But these aren’t just methods for architects or marketers or graphic artists; these are methods that we as educators can and should embrace as a powerful means for bringing problem-solving and collaboration to life in our learning spaces.   If you have ever struggled to help your students move from Point A to B to C in a *PBL project, design thinking will be indispensable to you.  [*See also:  staff meetings, strategic planning, school improvement teams, and pretty much every other collaborative endeavor you might encounter in a school district.]  


If you’re intrigued, but not quite sure what design thinking might look like in practice, no worries!  Writing about design thinking is one thing, but I’m pretty sure it’s easier to show rather than tell.  So over the next few weeks, I’ll share explainer videos and discuss some of our team’s favorite design methods for PBL, including specific methods for feedback, brainstorming, and research.  


See you all next week for a deep dive into brainstorming!


5 PBL Do’s and Don’ts for Administrators 

By Aaron Altemus

We’ve had the privilege to work with hundreds of PBL educators across many school systems; here are a few pieces of advice for any administrators who want to embed project-based learning into their schools:

  1. Start by educating yourself about PBL.  This will demonstrate your commitment to the work while making you better equipped to support teachers throughout the process.  You’ll also be better able to speak about PBL when seeking buy-in from staff.
  2. Provide staff with an overview of PBL, including clear definitions of the instructional approach and its benefits.  Provide teachers with a choice of whether or not to engage, and be clear on what a commitment to PBL in the classroom would look like. 
  3. If PBL is new to your school, seek out a cohort of early adopters to test-drive PBL.  Working through the process on a smaller scale will provide a safer, more manageable space to work out kinks that can then be avoided when moving to scale.
  4. Consider starting the cohort with a focus on implementing individual PBL elements in their regular  classroom instruction rather than planning and launching full-blown projects immediately. This will give teachers time to hone their PBL skills while managing fewer variables at a time.  
  5. Set the expectation that, no matter what happens, the emphasis will be on learning and growth.  Mistakes and failures should be expected, embraced, and celebrated.  Encourage teachers to reflect honestly and consistently about successes, struggles, and opportunities; and regularly convene the cohort to share their experiences across classrooms and eventually, with the staff at large.  
  1. Don’t send mixed messages.  If the expectation is for teachers to learn and grow their PBL practice, and to embrace failure…do not bring up test scores.  Talking data points and percentages will freeze early adopters in their tracks, and the fidelity of the PBL initiative will fizzle.
  2. Don’t expect perfection.  I mean this in several ways:  PBL often looks and sounds messy and chaotic, but that’s because PBL is also energetic and agile.  If you expect nice neat rows and kids working silently, you’ll be actively discouraging PBL.  Likewise, projects will not look or be executed perfectly.  There will likely be dead-ends, errors, and hiccups in the process, and that’s OK.
  3. Don’t assume that a few days of professional development will be enough.  Research shows that educators typically need at least 20 hours of training plus ongoing coaching and support to really impact instruction.  This support could come from external trainers or from experienced educators within your system.  Keep in mind that while educators may believe in the new pedagogy, it takes long-term practice to sustain instructional reform.  
  4. Don’t make PBL mandatory for everyone–at least not early on.  Engaging all staff at once dilutes the focus before showing proof of concept; and trying to engage teachers who are uninterested or actively opposed to PBL will be a drain on time and resources.  Let the naysayers be for now.  
  5. Don’t position PBL within one department, unless that department is collectively seeking to take up the PBL mantle.  No one wants to feel like the Guinea pig, or that their subject area is less important, and therefore ripe for experimentation.  Voice and choice is essential to getting new instructional practice off the ground.  


Creating a PBL Rubric?  Advice Part II

By Aaron Altemus

In case my last post on rubrics wasn’t exhilarating enough, I’m back with a sequel!

But seriously, rubrics are really valuable tools, especially as an assessment and guide for PBL instruction.  If you ever struggle with creating rubrics (like I sometimes do), here are a few suggestions to help you along the way:  

Add a Feedback Column

As I mentioned before, rubrics should provide students with a pathway to growth.  Using a feedback column allows you to more explicitly identify that pathway, and to set goals or next steps for improvement.  It’s also a space to praise students for their efforts that might not otherwise come through on the assessment itself.  

Use the Rubric During Feedback and Revision

Ask your students to put on their teacher’s hat and use the rubric to provide project feedback to their peers.  Applying the rubric to others’ work will push students to think more deeply about their assessment while raising the quality of student work prior to final presentations.  Consider asking students to review work from a different class to provide a little distance (and less awkwardness) between student reviewers.  

Keep It Simple

I try to follow the MAYA design principle:  Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.  I want to push my students’ thinking, but I also need my assessments to make sense; if I get too detailed, creating seven columns for every standard, we’re all going to get lost in the process.  I tend to focus on the key skills and standards that I want students to demonstrate, and if my rubric grows beyond a page, front and back, I start to look at ways that the assessment can be chunked.  

Don’t Get Too Far into the Weeds

Living the rubric life means accepting some level of ambiguity and subjectivity.  Maybe that’s life in general…I know that I am prone to drift from describing performance to tallying action.  For example, instead of, “Diversity of sources reflects multiple perspectives,” I sometimes get too specific with phrases like, “Includes citations from more than three sources.”  This kind of language has its place in a checklist, but not in a rubric.  Plus, injecting tallies into rubrics can disproportionately weight items and skew assessment.  Giving a student a ‘1’ on a rubric for having ‘more than five grammatical errors’ in a 1000 word paper would not reflect what that student has learned.