Project Work, Stage 2: Planning

Last week, I wrote about the beginning of my attempt to more effectively structure projects for my students. Since that post, my classes have now moved into Stage 2 of their project work: planning.

This is a phase that’s often difficult to get students to do well; they tend to want to rush right into creation, particularly if they’ve built up some enthusiasm for the project. I can sympathize here. As a student, I never wanted to outline an essay before I wrote it. And in fact, I still don’t plan all that well, as evidenced by the fact that I’m writing this blog post without a clear plan in mind. Hmm… Maybe there’s something for me to learn from my own teaching methods here…

Let’s dive into what this planning process looks like for students. As a reminder, at this stage, students have spent time brainstorming research questions that will help them develop an answer to our driving question (What should we do about terrorism?), and they’ve recorded notes as they researched those questions. Now it is time to plan.  

I struggled to come up with a universal way for them to plan their projects, because I gave students a choice of six different digital tools with which to create. I toyed around with having them create storyboards for their projects, but wasn’t sure it would be an appropriate planning format for all six tools. To keep it straightforward, I took the rubric for the project (a one-point rubric that you can see an image of in last week’s post) and broke it out into a series of questions that I called a “project outline.” I’m not sure whether or not this was the most effective way for them to plan, but… I’m just trying this out. So we’ll see how helpful it ends up being.  

I created a simple Google Doc for teams to use that presented them with a series of prompts, the first being, What digital tool are you using to create your project? Because many teams hadn’t yet chosen a tool, this took 10-20 minutes - students had to explore the six options and see which one they thought would be a good fit for them.

The first page of the project outline.

The first page of the project outline.

The other crucial prompt was, What is the argument your project will make? This, too, took them some time. They had spent a few days researching the answers to their questions during the information gathering stage, but now they had to decide what it all meant. Some groups sailed through this part of the process; it was clear to them how they wanted to answer the driving question and frame their project. Other groups struggled mightily. They got stuck on the idea that there is no solution that will “fix” terrorism, so what’s the point? I countered by saying that even if that’s true, we certainly can’t do nothing.

This is a pain point for some students - they don’t like experiencing the intellectual discomfort of not knowing the answer to something. They feel much more comfortable when grappling with questions and tasks that have a right answer or solution. But of course, this is also what makes project-based learning valuable for students. It’s where a lot of the learning happens, and the more we expose students to these opportunities for discomfort, the more they acclimate to it and build the academic resilience to tackle the tougher stuff.

The rest of the project outline walked students through thinking about all the criteria upon which their project will be evaluated, asking them to document how they intend to address each element. I made clear to students that their projects wouldn’t have to exactly follow their outline, since we often make adjustments while working, but that I did want them to go all the way through the outlining process before beginning work on the project.

Reflecting on these outlines without having yet seen students’ final products, I’d say they were… okay. As I wrote last week, I’ve often set students to project work without walking them through any initial information gathering or planning, so I have the feeling that this will have a net positive effect. However, I’m also sure that I could further refine this process for added effectiveness.

How do you help your students plan project work? Which strategies work best?

Erin DickeyComment