Get Motivated To Do Project-Based Learning Right

Ross Cooper on episode 215 [A special encore episode] of the 10-Minute Teacher Podcast

From the Cool Cat Teacher Blog by Vicki Davis

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Ross Cooper, co-author of Hacking PBL, helps us get motivated to think about project-based learning differently.


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Enhanced Transcript

Get Motivated to Do Project-based Learning the Right Way

How do we hack project-based learning?

Vicki: Happy Monday Motivation! We’re talking to Ross Cooper@RossCoops31, coauthor of Hacking Project Based Learning, about how we can get motivated to rock Project Based Learning in our classrooms.

So, Ross, what’s new and different, and how can we hack Project Based Learning?

Ross: I think when we talk about Project Based Learning sometimes it’s really abstract. You know, maybe we’ve heard about it, there’s a teacher down the hallway who’s doing this great job with it, and you’re like, “How the heck did that happen?” So what we tried to do in our book – and that’s the book that I co-authored with Erin Murphy, who’s now a middle school assistant principal – what we really tried to do was break it down, and as much as possible give teachers a step-by-step process in regard to how it can be done. So, rather than looking at it abstractly, we hack in by looking at the different components and focusing in on those.

How do we motivate ourselves and our schools to do project-based learning that really works?

Vicki: Well, you know, sometimes people say, “Oh, that’s a project,” or “Oh, that’s a project, and what are they learning?” What’s your advice about how we can get motivated to do Project Based Learning that really works?

Ross: Sometimes when we think about Project Based Learning, we think about it in terms of black and white, Vicki, so it’s either we’re not doing it and we are doing it. When we look at those different components of Project Based Learning – it might be creating a culture of inquiry, explicitly teaching collaboration skills, giving effective feedback – these are all things that can take place with or without full-blown Project Based Learning, right? It’s just best practice and best learning that’s in the best interest of our students.

So, I think a lot of times when teachers see the different components of Project Based Learning when it’s broken down for them, it’s really motivating because it’s like, “Oh my gosh! I’m already doing part of that! That’s already taking place in my classroom. My students are benefiting from this. We’re already on the way there. We just need to fine-tune what we’re doing a little bit to make it full blown PBL.”

I think for a lot of teachers, that’s really motivating because you’re not really throwing out the baby with the bathwater, right? It’s not one of those things where we’re like, “Everything you’ve been doing for the past five years is wrong. You need to do this instead.” It’s like, “No, you’re doing a lot of things right! We just need to tweak it to promote more inquiry, to promote more student-centered learning, and to promote more relevant learning for our students.”

The difference between “projects’ and project-based learning

Vicki: So, you’re trying to get past just – I mean, I’ve seen projects where people are just like, “They’re copying from Wikipedia,” or “They’re just searching and pasting facts on a page.” You’re really trying to get past that, in asking us, “Are we promoting inquiry, are we promoting collaboration, are we really having effective feedback?” I mean, is that where you’re trying to go with those?”

Ross: Yeah, exactly. So a lot of times – when I first started doing Project Based Learning in professional development a handful of years ago – it was kind of this whole idea of throwing out the baby with the bathwater like I just said. It was, “OK, this is what Project Based Learning is. This is what we’re going to shoot for.”

What I have found is – and you hinted at this, Vicki — is the difference between projects and Project Based Learning. A lot of teachers already are doing projects, right? So if we just make it very clear that, “OK, you’re doing projects. Here’s where Project Based Learning is. Let’s build on top of what you’re already doing. So we go from projects to PBL. You’re being respectful of what the teacher is already doing. You’re not throwing out the baby with the bath water. You’re meeting them where they are. In short, the difference between projects and Project Based Learning (and you mentioned this) is inquiry, right? Rather than covering content, it’s just uncovering of content – which then leads to a deeper understanding. But also, with a project, it’s almost like – you know, the traditional project, it’s like the cherry on top, right?

Vicki: Yeah.

Ross: As a result of that, it’s like, “OK. Good job. Now you get to make a poster or website or a hangar mobile or whatever product it might be.” And maybe you have everybody in the classroom making the same product. Whereas if it’s Project Based Learning, you’re learning through the project. So that project in itself is the learning. It is the unit. By the time students and teachers are done with it, the learning has taken place.

project based learning right ross cooper

An example of projects vs. project-based learning

Vicki: Could you give me an example of a project versus Project Based Learning?

Ross: The Project Based Learning experience that we talked about in the book is students building pinball machines. They learn about electricity and magnetism and force in motion while building pinball machines. So we went out to Home Depot. We got electrical circuits, we got wires, we got bulbs, we got wood. We used drills, hammers, all that great stuff. And we built pinball machines while learning about electricity and magnetism and force in motion.

So, they did lots of these little mini-experiments, some of which were taken from the textbook, but because they were done within the context of that pinball machine (that authentic context) it was that much more powerful for them.

That’s diving into STEM a little bit – you know Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – so rather than getting kind of… You know, sometimes you see these STEM activities. I’m going off on a little bit of a tangent here, but sometimes when you see those STEM activities, it’s like STEM in a box, right? And it’s like these step-by-step directions, and it’s “errorless,” right? “If you followed the directions, you’re going to have this great finished product.” Then the emphasis is on the product and not the process. So I think sometimes we have to be careful of those STEM in a box activities or at least reinvent them to promote inquiry.

That’s an example of a Project Based Learning experience. Anything can be a project, you know, the traditional project that we’ve done. So a lot of times what I’m doing for professional development on PBL, we’ll use the brochure, the traditional travel brochure. “OK, now that we’ve learned about this state, now that we’ve researched it, we’re going to (kind of what you alluded to) we’re going to copy-paste all of this information into a brochure to show off our fancy products for like maybe Meet the Teacher Night or Open House or something like that. And really all that is – it’s information dump, right? You’re taking information from one place, you’re putting it into another, and it looks great, but really – did it promote much thought on the part of the student?

Productive struggle versus “sucking the life” out of a project

Vicki: OK, what are some questions that teachers can ask themselves to kind of help themselves move from projects to Project Based Learning? When we look at our work for the upcoming school year, what should we be asking ourselves so that we can get further and better? I think we’re all shifting to where we want to help kids think and not just regurgitate, right?

Ross: (agrees) I think sometimes, like even when we’re, like you hit the nail right on the head when we’re delivering this professional development. It’s like, “OK, we need to get our students to think.” Alright? And it’s like we’re not really being clear. We think we are, but we’re really not. Sometimes we have to be even more explicit. I call it, “being explicit about being explicit.” We need to just dig down deeper and be as explicit as possible to give those key strategies.

About a month or so ago, I was in a teacher’s classroom. It was a science teacher. He was a great teacher. He was doing a science experiment with his students, and he said to the students, “As a result of doing this experiment, you’re going to find out X, Y, and Z.” Right? So immediately, the inquiry is sucked out of the project, it’s sucked out of the experiment, or the unit or whatever he’s doing because he’s telling students what they’re going to understand. So that’s the definition of coverage rather than uncovering the content.

So sometimes it’s just the matter that those entry points in getting ready for PBL or inquiry is just shifting the order in which we do things. So rather than telling students that as a result of this experiment or unit or activity, you’re going to find this out, it’s shifting the order and putting that purposeful play first, letting the students engage in that productive struggle first, and then coming together.

And that can be scary, too, right? Because that could be scary because that productive struggle – some students aren’t used to it, and maybe even more significantly, some teachers aren’t used to it. So if a teacher’s going to do that, it’s important to convey to your students that, “OK, this productive struggle is an important part of the learning process. It doesn’t mean that you’re messing up.” But putting that productive struggle first, and taking that direct instruction and moving it to the back.”

Essential questions versus essential answers

Vicki: They tell us to share our central questions, but it sounds like maybe, in that case, the teacher may have shared the essential answers, right?

Ross: (laughs) Yeah, yeah. Exactly. I think any time you can turn ownership over to the students, it’s a great thing. So even when you’re crafting the essential questions as you get more and more comfortable with it, even when I taught fourth grade by the end of the year my students would be crafting those essential questions. They would all come up with these essential questions, and then they would plug them into a Google form, and then we would have a vote as to which one was the best for their respective unit.

But I think really taking that, thinking about the order in which we do things and moving that discussion and that direct instruction to the back as far as possible is really a great thing to do. Even when we’re doing professional development with teachers, you know I always say, “No teacher said they wanted to make a shift because [insert famous researcher here] said so.” Right?

You shift because you feel that it’s what’s best for your students, and then maybe the research comes after. But if you’re doing PD and you’re leading with that direct instruction or you’re leading with that research, you’re going to get a lot of boredom and teachers who probably don’t want to move forward.

30-second pep talk for effectively using project-based learning

Vicki: So Ross, give us a 30-second pep talk about why we as teachers should shift from projects to Project Based Learning.

Ross: I think when you think about all of these things that we focus on in school, there’s a school idea of “initiative fatigue,” right? We’re stuck with one initiative after the other after the other. Really everybody can be fatigued, from the administrators right down to the students.

But when you think about this hard-hitting instructional approach and hard-hitting learning strategy that encompasses so much, all with this great context, it really is Project Based Learning. You’ve got the four C’s in Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication that everybody talks about. Like I said before, you have feedback, you have learning spaces, you have publishing, formative assessment, powerful mini-lessons. All these great things that are really wrapped up in one approach.

Once you learn how to do it really, once you learn how to plan with a unit perspective in mind, using PBL rather than a lesson by lesson perspective, you’re never going to want to go back to the way that you taught before. This puts the students at the center of the learning, and ultimately, it’s what’s best for them.

Vicki: The book is Hacking Project Based Learning. We’ll be doing an e-book giveaway, so check the Shownotes, enter to win, and share this show and comment.

We all really need to be motivated to think about the difference this week between, “Are we doing just projects? Or are we truly moving to Project Based Learning?” Because the difference is remarkable.

Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as submitted

Ross is the coauthor of Hacking Project Based Learning, and the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District (1:1 MacBook/iPad) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Innovator. His passions are inquiry-based learning and quality professional development. He blogs about these topics at He regularly speaks, presents, and conducts workshops related to his writings and professional experiences.

When he is not working, he enjoys eating steak and pizza, exercising, reading books, playing on his computer, and provoking his three beautiful nephews. Please feel free to connect with him via email,, and Twitter, @RossCoops31.


Twitter: @RossCoops31

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” This company has no impact on the editorial content of the show.

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