Hacking Project-Based Learning

Hacking Project-Based Learning

I’m in the middle of Hacking Project-Based Learning by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy, a concise, practical guide for teachers wishing to deploy PBL in their courses.

Cooper and Murphy are primary school teachers, so their examples are often calibrated to the elementary grades. But, as they remind readers, instructors can scale and adapt PBL to the learning level of their own students.

How the book is organized

As the subtitle suggests (“10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom”), the book is designed as a toolkit for quick action. The short chapters are presented as “hacks,” expedient solutions to common classroom problems. Chapter sections like What YOU Can Do Tomorrow and Overcoming Pushback show how the book is tailored to help you clear hurdles and achieve rapid adoption. The hacks:

  1. Develop a space that promotes risk-taking
  2. Teach collaboration skills
  3. Magnify PBL-worthy content
  4. Create a vision for your project
  5. Wrap the learning in inquiry
  6. Shift the ownership of assessment
  7. Make feedback everyone’s business
  8. Reserve the right to mini-lesson
  9. Guarantee understanding
  10. Finish off your project in style

In separate posts, I plan to write a synopsis on most of these hacks, to convey some of each chapter’s main points. Here’s the first:

Hack 1: Develop a Space that Promotes Risk-Taking

How many times each day does the following conversation take place somewhere in western civilization:

Parent: How was school?
Child: Boring.
Parent: What did you do?
Child: Nothing.

The opening chapter of Hacking Project-Based Learning presents a problem I discussed in an earlier post titled Children Are Curious; Students Are Not, that schools kill curiosity.

Human children exhibit great curiosity and wonder. Babies and toddlers are inquisitive and experimental to the point of annoyance. Anyone who has seen a plastic spoon thrown repeatedly from a highchair or fielded a barrage of Why? questions can attest to this. Kids want to learn and they don’t care how much Gerber hits the wall.

Sadly though, our old-fashioned education system, designed to churn out nineteenth-century factory workers, wrings most of the curiosity out of kids. Salvaging some of their youthful curiosity, Cooper and Murphy suggest, is good for education generally, and PBL in particular.

Ken Robinson’s TED Talk Do schools kill creativity?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

Learning occurs when class is active and engaging. Students confined to a lecture hall doing passive, rote learning are all-but-certain to become incurious and disengaged. To encourage emotional and intellectual investment, there must be stakes: risks and rewards.

A successful PBL classroom relies on a culture of inquiry and creativity to ensure students engage in deeper learning driven by their curiosities.

p. 19

Of course, instructors must strive for the right amount of risk. If students suffer failures that are traumatizing or dispiriting, the learning process itself will fail. Cooper and Murphy suggest “removing the stigma from the word ‘failure'” by creating a failure board for students to post their mistakes. They also urge teachers to talk through their processes and share their own failures.


The authors list several steps to foster risk-taking. Here are a few:

Build relationships: A risk-taking environment must contain trust, so instructors should talk with every student, every day. Further, show empathy toward students. This individual attention will forge the student-teacher relationship.

Teach students to ask good questions: Fruitful inquiry arises from effective questions. Three methods for this are mentioned:

  • Question carousel: Each student group writes down one problem. Then groups rotate through each problem, brainstorming a list of questions for each one. Once each problem has cycled through each group, a list of critical questions comes back to the original group.
  • Question formulation technique: The QFT is detailed in this earlier post.
  • Why? What if? How?: Journalist and speaker Warren Berger designed this 3-step sequence to tackle any problem.
A brief overview of the QFT

In the final step of the blueprint, the authors caution us that “the verbal and nonverbal cues we offer students who are experiencing setbacks can make or break a learning experience.” Thus, it’s essential to calibrate our responses to foster perseverance rather than despair.


The practical advice in this chapter will help teachers create the right classroom culture, that of inquiry and creativity. Having established trusting, empathetic relationships, students will feel empowered to triumph over adversity. This will foster healthy risk-taking, accomplishing hack one in the movement toward PBL in the classroom.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *