Teaching independence through open-ended projects

Giving students more control and ownership over their lessons and experiences in school is a double-edged sword. Educators want independent learners who want to find out more and know how to study but young people need to learn to self-regulate.

The process of learning how to manage time and own behavior is hard on teachers! Not only is it difficult to witness children sabotaging their own education but our colleagues may judge the noisy classroom as chaotic and unproductive. One horrible project can be enough to put teachers off forever.

Teaching should not be like curling, the winter sport where you clear a path on the ice for the moving rocks. But it should not be like bobsleigh racing either, where you give the team a nudge and they careen down a mountain.

Procrastination, fall outs during group work and issues with focus are all part of the process. Make it easy on yourself (and your class), act as a coach by increasing the difficulty of completing an open ended project gradually. You can increase the difficulty in several directions. If your students are just starting out, it’s best to make one thing harder at a time. You will be able to see where they need the most practice the first time around.

Base level

  • Have your students work in pairs or alone
  • Give a very detailed project specification and tell them how they will know they are successful
  • Give resources/a lecture on the topic at hand
  • Give them time management sheets (I love Gantt charts but they made one of my students cry, so use your discretion)
  • Make them discuss the big picture and the little details
  • Check in with them regularly with mini-deadlines for different stages of the project
  • Bring the class together to share progress updates every lesson
  • Have them grade themselves on their teamwork, time management and effort

More independence

  • Ask them to write their own project specification and success criteria
  • Leave them to decide if they want to focus on big picture or small details
  • Give no background information about the topic they are working on

More teamwork

  • Have larger groups (but usually no more than four, the fifth member of any team goes on cruise control)
  • Have them assign roles (like leader, writer, resources etc)
  • Alternatively: have pairs collaborate with another set as critical friends

More time management

  • Have them decide their own mini-deadlines
  • Take out the mini-deadlines entirely and only have the “Big Date”. This usually ends in disaster… and that’s alright. They have to learn not to leave things to the last minute somewhere. It might as well be with you. Just make sure it’s not a grade YOU need (like an important piece of coursework.)

Stick with it. Some students find this incredibly difficult at first and it is hard to watch them struggle. But stick with it. You will be amazed at their progress over the course of the year. You will also see how this independence affects other types of lessons: once a child knows how to, say, research a topic, write a script, perform it, edit the footage and evaluate it, they are more than capable of pretty much anything else you throw at them.


12 Powerful Project Based Learning Tips!

Project Based Learning (PBL) is using projects to teach. They can be challenging but are the cornerstone of my classroom and have been for many years. Here are 12 tips for successful project based learning in your classroom.

1 – Begin with the End in Mind

Always start with what you want to accomplish – your objectives. Share the objectives with your students so they clearly understand the purpose of what you’re doing.

2 – Always Have Rubrics

Students should clearly know what they are expected to do. Sometimes students want to spend more time on one aspect or another and may lobby for a change in the rubric. It is OK to modify rubrics in response to student requests and feedback. I recommend that this only happen well before the due date and after discussion with the whole class.

3 – Be Flexible

There are times projects take longer than expected or when one aspect doesn’t quite work out. If a project is new, call it a prototype and be flexible if you see you’ve underestimated how long part of the project would take. Then, adjust the project before you run it next time.

4 – Give Choices

Instead of requiring a specific tool, ask students to “create a multimedia presentation” or “create a video.”  Let students choose the tool. For example, if asking students to create a multimedia presentation mention that PowerPoint, Keynote, Haiku Deck, Prezi, Canva, or Emaze are options or they can find their own. You want to encourage students to explore and learn new tools.

5 – Add Intrigue

Add exciting, unexpected experiences – particularly to longer projects. For example, you might have a “guest speaker” via Skype or Google Hangout. You can be your own guest speaker! Dress up as a character or historical figure as you teach an element that will help them on the project.

Longer projects – particularly writing projects – can need a change of pace so have interesting class discussions and special activities intermixed. Put these mystery days on the schedule and create intrigue and anticipation to give students things to look forward to. (See Chapter 13 of my book Reinventing Writing for more ideas.)

6 – Engage with an Audience

Your wastebasket is a horrible audience. When students have an audience, they are more likely to perform at higher levels.(Aghbar and Alam 1992) This can be by sharing publicly or even by taking their best work and putting it into a portfolio that can be shared with parents and others.

7 – Have Ways to Make More than a Perfect Score

Competitions and contests with voting can also be an exciting addition. Have external judges at other schools review work online based on the rubric. You’ll find that they’ll find some hidden gems and performers that others may not spot if you have judges who are part of your school and know the students. You can also have student voting for “student’s choice” awards for best projects. Such competitions can be highly motivating to some students who would normally stop when they met all of the requirements on the rubric.

8 – Use Tools that Appeal to Multiple Senses and Allow Multiple Modes of Expression

Students have different strengths. Ensure that longer projects give students various ways to express themselves: voice, writing, video. Thinglink, Voicethread, Booktrack, Explain Everything and PowerPoint MIx, and many more tools can be used in this way.

9 – Involve Parents

Encourage parents to have dinner table conversations where their child explains what is happening of a topic of interest in class. Challenge parents to help students find their interests and encourage their pursuit. Encourage communication about the strengths of children not just areas for improvement.

Powerful parent relationships can start with you reaching out to parents to compliment their child. When parents know you care about their child, you become partners in helping the child succeed. I’ve never had a relationship built upon finding a child’s strengths turn negative. Projects with multiple modes of expression give students room for their strengths to emerge.

10 – Celebrate the Process

The journey is the destination as you work on projects. Students should be challenged to solve their own problems. Present alternate approaches and let the student decide which one. Have students take photographs and reflect on the process during the project. Conclude with online or face to face presentations where other students, parents, or administrators are involved. Celebrate and enjoy learning. (Some classes with have a Google Hangout or Skype presentation with another class to conclude.)

11 – Participate, Monitor, Engage

As students work through their rubric, check to see where they are. Ask for reports on what they are doing.

Watch to see if a part of the project is taking longer than expected or if a student gets distracted and loses focus. Engage with students in conversation about what they are doing to help them stay directed where they are heading with the project.

12 – Respond Promptly to Student Work with Specific Feedback at Checkpoints and When Done

Long projects deserve specific feedback. I’ve seen students do masterful work on a project just to be crushed when their teacher returns it to them with just a check on the front. Students need audience and deserve constructive feedback.

Projects are an excellent addition to the classroom. I hope that you’ll consider these twelve and add your thoughts in the comments. PBL rocks but it is all in the implementation.



Aghbar, Ali Asghar, and Mohammed Alam. Teaching the Writing Process through Full Dyadic Writing. Reports-Descriptive 141 ED 352808, FL021784, 1992, p. 19. As cited in Wynn, E.S. An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Research on Collaborative Writing, 1999. Retrieved January 16, 2012, from www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=ED438744.