At the end of the year, right before Winter Break, I ask the teaching teams that I coach to reflect on their past projects using two reflective questions:

What would you keep? What would you throw away?

I’m paraphrasing here, but here’s what I heard:

  • “I wouldn’t spend so much time front-loading content”
  • “I would have made group roles more clear”
  • “I should have provided more time for feedback.”
  • “I would have screened our community partners better before using them.”
  • “I would have ran it longer than three weeks…they needed at least 12 weeks to build the app.”

And while of course every project-based experience will have its unforeseen pitfalls and challenges, there’s a better way than reflecting after the project is already complete…


Asking students to build an app? Prototype the build of one yourself before you launch.
Wanting students to publish a book? First, try publishing your own.

Here our 10 reasons why:

  1. You build empathy: Doing the project first allows you to empathize with the challenges your learners will face.
  2. You create credibility: Rather than be perceived as a theorist or academician, you build credibility with students that the projects you are proposing are within their grasp.
  3. You instil confidence: Each lesson, activity, or milestone in the project timeline are absolutely necessary, because you have built them yourself.
  4. You have fun!: Project-Based experiences should be fun! Too often we bog projects down with cumbersome requirements, expectations, rubrics, and step by step procedures. Doing the project first reminds us of what it’s like to be a learner and discover as we go!
  5. You become more relatable: How often do you fail in front of your students? I’m taking Brene Brown’s lead here, but I’m assuming the more we as teachers are willing to fail, the more comfortable our students will feel taking risks of their own. Pin up your failed attempts in the same project you are asking students to take on. (ie. If attempting to publish a book, pin up your rejection letters from publishers!)
  6. You prune what isn’t important: So many projects fail because they try to incorporate 6-10 subjects, and 50+ standards. That’s not realistic. Simple structures beget complex results. By doing the project first, you prune off the excess and get down to the simple core/crux of the experience. You can communicate the essential LEARNING required for project success.
  7. You learn how to work with a team: It doesn’t matter how many times you tell your students to ‘collaborate,’ ‘work together,’ or ‘act like a team.’ Unless you have modelled what this looks like yourself, collaboration will look the same way it always has in your classroom. Doing the project first with a team helps you understand how to allocate roles, divide and delegate tasks, build on each person’s strengths, and establish norms for working together. When supporting student teams, you will have a well of stories of your own to draw from.
  8. You become a [co] learner: Remember that coach that came onto the field with you to demonstrate the pass, shot, block, jump, etc? Suddenly it wasn’t BIG ‘them’ and little ‘you.’ It was BIG ‘US!’ That kind of respect and community can’t be earned from the front of the classroom with a few handouts and a project introductory slide. It’s earned by becoming a learner with your students and modelling the same curiosity and wonder you expect them to possess.
  9. You re-ignite your own passion: Let’s face it- teaching can be tiring. Some of us have lost that spark for why we got into the classroom in the first place. Doing projects will re-ignite the wonder, joy and passion we feel when taking on new challenges and tasks. Pick up that guitar that’s accumulated dust under your bed. Clean out the cobwebs from the toolshed you constructed to help with landscaping projects in the yard. Come alive again!
  10. You build a growth mindset: By now, we all know the importance of a ‘growth’ mindset in learning. Yet, if it’s only encouraged by asking students to re-do a worksheet, or take a second shot at a test, we are failing to build it in things THEY care about. Doing projects first will build persistence in something YOU care about, which in turn will help you put the supportive structures, culture and mindsets in place to grow it in things your students care about as well.

Scared to do the project first all by yourself?

Do what VIS Better Lab School in Taiwan did and construct a ‘project committee.’ This includes a diverse cross-section of students with special skills and talents to support project design and implementation. With such a wide range of collaborators, you will all but guarantee project success!

And if you need an extra pair of eyes on your project plan, I’m only a quick e-mail away.

Your [co] learning experience designer,