PBL Pro Tips from John Larmer: How Do You Plan Day-to-Day Lessons & Activities in PBL?

(Note: This includes a detailed look at a sample Defined Learning project calendar with added features from the Framework for High-Quality PBL)

Planning a project is kind of like planning a curriculum unit: you think of how it will begin, what lessons and activities students will experience, what resources you and they will use, the assessments, and how it will end. You might plan lessons for two or three weeks ahead, or at least have the later ones in mind when the unit starts.
However, planning a project (that meets the criteria for High-Quality PBL) differs from a traditional unit in several ways. For one thing, a project typically takes a bit more time than a unit on the topic would, because it includes polished products, time for reflection, and often a presentation.

Additionally, there are some features of HQPBL that aren’t as likely to appear in traditional instruction, such as student-generated questions, peer critique protocols, and explicit focus on the use of future-ready skills. And finally, you need to build in some flexible work time for students, because the process needed to complete the project and create products can’t be predicted exactly–especially if it’s the first time you’re implementing the project.

Many teachers find it relatively easy to plan the beginning of a project, and the culmination at the end–it’s the “messy middle” that can be challenging, especially if you’re new to PBL. A project is not just a series of teacher-directed lessons and activities, mostly completed by students working individually, followed by a test or some other traditional summative assessment. But even though a project might seem more complicated to plan, after you gain experience you’ll find it easier to plan that middle part–and allow for some degree of planning-on-the-fly as needs arise.

4 Phases of a Project
Generally speaking, a typical project has four phases, as shown below:

Phase one is fairly straightforward to plan, as the teacher introduces the project and launches the inquiry process. (In Defined Learning’s performance tasks/projects, videos and slides are provided to introduce it and give background information on the goal, role, audience, situation, and products - the “GRASP” framework created by Jay McTighe.) The last phase is also relatively straightforward, as it is shorter and has fewer things to do.

It’s the 2nd and 3rd phases that can feel “messy.” In addition to building knowledge and skills–which btw could involve some traditional teaching tools–students might be working in teams, using project management practices, and talking with experts or people beyond the classroom. These phases also overlap to some extent, because as students develop products and get feedback they may find they need to go back and build some additional knowledge and skills.

An Example of Planning for the “Messy Middle”

I’ve created a sample “project calendar” to show what happens on each day of a project, shown below. I began with a MS/HS United States history performance task/project that I recently wrote for Defined Learning, “Fine Artist: Memorial for Iraq and Afghanistan Wars” and added some features of HQPBL. Here is the “GRASP” framework for this project:

  • Goal: To propose a design for a memorial for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that captures their history and significance.
  • Role: A fine artist–a painter or sculptor.
  • Audience: The staff of the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation.
  • Situation: The Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation is asking for proposals for a memorial to be placed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The war on terrorism, which included the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was launched after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001. As an artist, you’ve admired the powerful, innovative Vietnam Veterans memorial by designer and sculptor Maya Lin. Now it’s your turn to come up with a creative, meaningful idea for a piece of sculpture, a mural, or some other constructed piece. The competition’s winner will gain fame and fortune!
  • Products: (1) Interview with a veteran, with notes and summary (2) written proposal for a memorial (3) drawing of the memorial.

Sample Project Calendar

(“Fine Artist: Memorial for Iraq and Afghanistan Wars” 

Defined Learning U.S. History Task)

Day 1

Entry Event: Video & discussion about 9/11

Introduction to project (topic, career role, goal, role, audience, situation)

Student questions generated (know/need to know list)

Day 2

Student teams formed

Collaboration activity

Teams make agreements for working together

Project products discussion; review rubrics


Discussion of Product #1, veteran interview; finding someone to interview

Day 3

Project management lesson, tools

Discussion of project deadlines, public presentation, other details

Teams plan their work

Research begins: war memorials 

Homework: Readings & research on wars (notes due Mon.)

Day 4

Lesson on information literacy; good vs. bad sources

Mini-lecture on terrorism, Al Qaeda

Work time: plan questions for veteran interview

Exit ticket: Finding a veteran to interview?

Day 5

Quiz on terrorism, Al Qaeda

Discussion of research sources & findings so far

Share/discuss questions for veteran interview

Project progress discussion, troubleshooting, need to knows

Day  6

Mini-lecture, video, readings on Afghanistan War

Checkpoint: Reading & research notes

Team work time: share ideas for memorial; reflect on agreements, collaboration skills

Day 7

Mini-lecture, video, readings on Iraq War

Lesson on writing proposal for memorial

Team planning & writing time

Day 8

Checkpoint: Veteran Inter-  view summary due

Discussion of what you learned from interviews 

Team planning & writing time

Day 9

Peer critique protocols: draft of written proposal for memorial

Team work time; using feedback from peer critique

Lesson on drawing of memorial (guest: art teacher)

Day 10

Test on Afghanistan, Iraq Wars

Revisit know/need to know list

Team reflection on agreements, progress, to-dos

Day 11

Project progress discussion, troubleshooting, need to knows

Team work time 

Day 12

Work time: Written Proposal & Drawing of Memorial

Peer critique protocol for drawing of memorial

Day 13

Final drafts due: Written Proposal & Drawing of Memorial

Plans & practice presentations

Day 14

Presentations of Proposals & Drawing to panel (veteran, art teacher, other adults)

Day 15

Summative self- assessment (written reflection)

Discussion: Reflection on history of War on Terrorism; students’ use of future-ready skills; project design, support


As you can see, the details of each of the lessons and activities in the calendar will need to be planned. Some of them may look familiar to you–like a mini-lecture, a quiz, or a reading assignment. Some may look unfamiliar if you’re new to PBL: generating a list of student questions, facilitating a critique protocol, managing team work time and presentations to a panel. (For guidance on these and more PBL practices, see Defined Learning’s new “Teacher Toolbox.”)

Btw, most teachers tend to over-plan when starting to use PBL, which is OK; it’s better than under-planning! You’ll find the sweet spot soon enough–probably by your second or third project.

Once you’ve implemented a few projects, the middle will seem less messy.
As you and your students become more familiar with working in a PBL environment, you can rely on established routines for many of the activities, so they won’t require much planning. You will likely find yourself able to “go with the flow” and not have to plan everything in advance. Then you’ll enjoy and see the benefits of the open-endedness and student independence found in PBL.

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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