PBL Pro Tips from John Larmer: How Can Project Management Skills Be Taught in PBL?

When employers look for people to hire, one of the top things they often want to know is, can they manage projects? It’s good to have that on your resume and it’s a common interview question. Project management skills are also useful in college, where students are not directed by a teacher every step of the way, and long-term assignments must be self-managed. Knowing how to manage a project comes in handy for life in general, too, whether it's planning an event, doing a home improvement project, or taking a trip.

Project management is a vital future-ready competency that can fall between the cracks of traditional subject-area-specific instruction. Students might learn some of these skills when a teacher assigns roles in group work, uses checklists for daily or weekly activities, or guides them in following a process for writing a paper or report–but it’s not in-depth or systematic.

I think the best way–maybe the only way, really–to learn project management skills is … to do projects! And do many of them, throughout a student’s K-12 education, to hone their skills and embed them deeply. Even very young students can begin to learn them–and high schoolers can approach the level of adults in the workplace.

All of the above are the reasons why project management is one of the six criteria in the Framework for High-Quality Project Based Learning. In PBL, unlike typical traditional instructional approaches, project management skills are explicitly taught, applied in an authentic context, and assessed.


Tips for Teaching Project Management in PBL

It’s important to include project management in PBL because without it a project can get messy. Students may not make enough progress toward completing their work, and the project winds up taking too long. The products may not be of the highest possible quality. Different teams could face a variety of challenges in working together, meeting deadlines, and managing time and tasks. Instead of trying to manage everything themselves, experienced PBL teachers turn over the job to students–but they need scaffolding.

The term “project management” comes from the business world, and is defined as “the process of leading the work of a team to achieve all project goals within the given constraints.” Constraints include things like time, scope, resources, and budget. The process starts with planning, then includes deciding how to do the work, and then monitoring progress and problem-solving.

Here are some tips and tools for using project management at the beginning, middle, and end of a project:


1. Project Launch
  • Ask student teams to set goals, after they are clear on what the project is about–the big picture (for example, the “Goal, Role, Audience, Situation, Products” framework used by Defined Learning).
  • Create a whole-class project calendar, digitally or on chart paper, so students can visualize the beginning, middle, and end. Put major milestones/checkpoints on it, as well as key events like presentations, fieldwork, or visits with outside experts/organizations, if any.
  • Have teams create a “To-Do List” with details about the what, who, and when. Younger students can make theirs on paper; older students could use a digital spreadsheet. Consider providing a template, something like this table for a hypothetical project:
Task Step Who By When Progress Notes
Research Find websites Luisa Oct. 1 Done
Research Contact expert J.J. Oct. 4 Underway
Research Conduct survey Thanh Oct. 6 Starting soon


2. Building Knowledge, Developing Products
  • Have student teams monitor their progress regularly. Have periodic check-ins with each team, or ask teams to each send one member for a meeting with the teacher.
  • Ask teams to report any problems they are encountering, then share resources and ideas for solving them.
  • To track progress, use the technology tools found in the business world, to the extent possible, such as Trello, Gannt charts, and Scrum or Kanban boards. Younger students can use similar tools but with simplified, analog versions on whiteboards or paper.

3. Culminating Events/Presentations
  • Ask students to reflect on the project, both individually, in teams, and as a whole class. Include such things as whether they met criteria for success; how well they worked together and met deadlines; lessons learned about project management; their growth and what they might do differently next time.


You don’t need to do all of the above strategies if you’re new to PBL. Pick a few to try in your first few projects, then add more as you and your students gain experience. And soon, you’ll find your PBL classroom operating like a smooth, well-oiled machine!




About the Author:  

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.


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