My Epic Failure with PBL- A first hand account

We were five weeks into our civilization project with no idea when we would exhibit our work. Students had only recently received the physical bases for their model civilizations- 4×4 sheets of plywood purchased from Home Depot, less than a mile away.

I had mixed feelings. I was excited to finally help them start their work, but anxious that they would not have enough time to complete it.

Let’s rewind to five weeks earlier when the project was first introduced.

Day One

The project idea was great.

I told students that they would create the model for a civilization they thought up; including evidence of government structure, geographic features, economic method of exchange, social classes, and religious ideologies.

To hook them on the concept I showed them a few animations of civilizations from youtube, and shared some photos from ones I visited in real life- including Chichen Itza and the preserved Forum of Rome.

They were all engaged.

Students were excited and we had an idea of what we would be doing. I felt comfortable teaching them about the major facets of civilization and we had the resources to make it happen.

It all started out so well…

But here was the problem: I had absolutely no idea what they would create and when the project would end. I was young, new to project- based learning and open to the “let’s see what happens” concept I thought PBL was all about.

Perhaps that’s why after five weeks of the project students had not produced a single thing, and there was no end in sight.

Starting with the End in Mind

Does this experience sound familiar? Have you too had projects that started out so well only to lose steam as they dragged on?

While I don’t have a crystal ball and won’t pretend to know exactly why these projects failed, I think I have a pretty good hunch.

Projects generally fail because they have not properly been mapped out, with a clear end in mind.

As project based teachers and leaders, we need to start the planning process with a clear vision of what students will produce at the end. This final product or “deliverable” as the Buck Institute for Education calls it, is what guides us to envision the appropriate content, experiences, and activities students will need to get there.

Here is a video that demonstrates this concept:


Starting with the end in mind has more advantages than simply ensuring a final product. It also ensures the outcomes we know are associated with good learning: Greater student engagement, deeper learning, and acquisition of key skills. The following are research based advantages of starting with the end in mind:

Advantage #1: Greater Student Engagement

The concept is simple. Tell students that they will produce something they themselves thought up, and they will be engaged from start to finish. This concept alone will ensure that there is a goal for the learning and that you can keep students focused even when the project experiences a lull. Giving students a fixed, guaranteed outcome will ensure that they always have something to work towards. I recommend finding models of the kind of work you are asking students to produce. If none exist, create them yourself.

Advantage #2: Easier to Plan

How many of you are overwhelmed with the concept of project planning? There are so many moving parts, unexpected twists and turns, and pieces to fit together. This is all true. But I guarantee your planning will be infinitely easier if you know what students will produce at the end. Beginning with the end in mind will allow you to plan those parts of the project that have been traditionally left to chance. You will be able to design key experiences and understandings students will need to be successful in that final product.


Advantage #3: Easier to Assess

By identifying the key knowledge and skills students will need to be successful in the project, you will be able to more easily design your assessments. Assessments won’t be driven by the random assortment of standards and skills laid out by your curriculum, but by the clear sequence of events laid out by your project. You can list these standards and skills at the beginning of the project as the things students “need to know” to be successful in the final outcome.

Advantage #4: Provides for Deeper Learning

We all know that retention increases when students are able to transfer and apply content and skills in meaningful and authentic ways. By foreshadowing for students a clear outcome, you will ensure they learn content and skills on a deeper level. In the case of my earlier project, had I told students that they would be responsible for creating a scaled model for their civilization that ensures happiness and prosperity for all its citizens, they would be required to understand the characteristics of civilization on a deeper level. We would be able to focus our efforts on understanding how ancient civilizations have negotiated economic, political, geographic and cultural systems in order to achieve this result.


Advantage #5: More Student Ownership and Buy-In

I love this paradox. You would think that providing a fixed outcome might decrease student ownership, given they had no say in what they would produce. But on the contrary, by providing structure, you will actually be providing the greatest potential for autonomy. For example, in the case of the earlier project, yes, students will all create a model for their civilization; but where they will be located, how they will govern, how they will foster trade, and how they will celebrate cultural events is all up to them. In essence, by providing a clear structure, you will have granted students the creative license for how they will meet the end goal.

A Road Map for This Process

Here’s a visual that will help you plan with the end in mind. Start with the finish line and work your way backwards.

Do you have additional ideas?

Do you currently plan with the end in mind? I would love to hear about how planning backwards has transformed student learning in your classroom or school! Please share your own stories and I will be sure to include them in my next newsletter. As always, I am here to help foster your growth. Don’t hesitate to reach out if there is anything you need. Have a great week!