In the adult world projects are a way of living life. It’s amazing to me how much I do that is project-based bothLiving in Projects professionally and personally. Opening and maintaining a consulting business is a major project. There is much to do and things that I learn along the way, such as how do I effectively communicate my national expertise with instructional design such as PBL and school improvement. Last week my family hosted a graduation party for my niece. The planning and preparations, along with the collaboration with her and family from out of state, lead to the culminating event.

My kids love to play open-ended games like Sandbox, Terraria, and Minecraft. They watch numerous videos of other players playing these games to learn about the environment, geography, and strategies. They download mods that enable them to build towns and terrains in collaboration with other players who share a similar passion. This sounds like game based learning, a topic for another time, but what is really happening is that they are embracing projects of their own choosing. Just as others take the project journey to earn their drivers license, get a summer job, or craft stories with dolls or action figures, project based learning occurs for all ages.

What is amazing about both the adult and children examples above is that if we reflect on the activities, we can identify skill sets from different content areas that are represented.

I invite you to pause. Choose an example or choose one of your own life projects. Brainstorm 3-5 skills from at least one discipline. Bonus bragging points if you identify skills from 2 or more disciplines 😉




The point of the stories and the reflective exercise is that as teachers, we can generate many projects that makes the curriculum content engaging and meaningful to students. Ideas fit into at least 3 lens:

  1. Solving a problem
  2. Exploring an idea
  3. Pursuing a passion

Lens 1: Solving a problem

There are challenges, puzzles, or conflicts that need resolution. In business, society, and personal worlds, there are problems to be solved. Frame one or more problems that students seek solutions. Include criteria that requires them to incorporate needed skills either explicitly or as background.

Media saves the beach

Lens 2: Exploring an idea

Experimentation is a great way to explore ideas. Whether the idea revolves around science or social issues, for example, students are given or choose an outcome and then figure out how to get there or come up with an entirely different destination. Designing a roller coaster or community skate park can lead to in-depth understanding of Mathematics, Science, English Language Arts, and Social Studies–just to start.

Courtyard Redesign

Lens 3: Pursuing a passion

Teachers are often hesitant to have students study an issue that is close to the instructor’s heart. Yet when students see the teacher’s passion about the topic it interests them. Consider when someone told you about a movie, book, or restaurant that “you’ve just got to check out!” Their eyes sparkle with energy as they tell you in vivid detail about the experience. It’s hard not to get drawn in. There are schools that cultivate students’ passions into curriculum skills and standards.

Kinectic Art

However you develop the project idea, think about how the idea will manifest by the end of the project. The final experience should be meaningful beyond the classroom walls. Students should be told on the first day of the project what they will solve, create, or pursue by the end of the unit. If possible, give students flexibility with the final product/presentation so that they can differentiate themselves from the others. Any idea can work. Just begin with the framework of the three lens, and you’ll soon have a project based learning experience that has rich potential to address content standards and connect for students the content to life context.