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Project Management Makes or Breaks Projects. Here's How to Do It Right
Project management can be the biggest pitfall of project-based learning. Teachers and students just aren't given this skillset. Here's 6 steps to fix that.
“Corporate America spends more than $275 billion each year on approximately 200,000 projects. Many of these projects will fail, but not for lack of money or technology; most will fail for lack of skilled project management.”
It was this 1999 study from the international research firm The Standish Group that made me realize the extent to which project management can make or break a project. And I can’t help but wonder if that outcome would be different if schools devoted time to teach this skill...
Project-based learning (PBL) has been around since John Dewey. He was one of the earliest proponents of hands-on learning or experiential education, and argued "if knowledge comes from the impressions made upon us by natural objects, it is impossible to procure knowledge without the use of objects which impress the mind."
The effectiveness and impact PBL offers has been recorded in multiple studies throughout the years, showing double-digit, multi-year performance increases in standardized testing by students taught in a PBL environment over students from a traditional classroom environment. These benefits are enhanced when technology is incorporated meaningfully according to the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Outstanding performance indicators have been a catalyst for adopting PBL in a growing number of schools. As a computer teacher, and now founder and CEO of Project Pals, I’ve witnessed many of those attempts and realized that one of the biggest obstacles in trying to adopt PBL is lack of project management skills.
When teachers are attempting to start PBL in their classrooms, they’re not aware just how essential the ability to manage projects is to their completion. Because of this lack of understanding, PBL may end up misinterpreted to be a summary of a topic done on the computer by individual students, leaving out collaboration that is so crucial to PBL.
This isn't surprising, because simply put: Teachers aren't project managers. While educators have tapped into a teaching method that truly engages students in active learning, students (as well as most teachers and parents) haven’t been provided a standard framework and skill set for consistently doing projects.
Projects require a complex set of competencies such as problem solving, decision-making, time management, research, analysis and synthesis of information, collaboration, and conflict resolution. But they also require project management strategies and methods for planning, doing, and completing them, allowing those involved to focus on the content of what the project is about, rather than figuring out how to get it done.
When I searched the internet for project management in project-based learning, there were very few meaningful results. Interpretations of what project management were all over the place: Some said it’s a way to schedule tasks, others included teaching methods that aren’t even directly related to project management, like ‘Use social media,’ or ‘Formatively assess often.’ In order to instill those lifelong project management skills, students will need much more than that.
According to Dr. John Spencer, project management is about following a systematic process of setting up goals and charting progress, breaking down tasks and setting deadlines, choosing and implementing strategies to complete their tasks and finally they will need to monitor, adjust and problem solve.
One of the biggest discoveries that I made in my history of working with students on projects is that managing the projects needs to be delegated to the students. It isn’t easy, but the process becomes more ingrained in students with each instance, and our students are much more capable than we give them credit for.
6 Steps for Mastering Project Management
Breaking down the process into bite-sized steps can empower your students to become expert project managers while building essential skills like leadership and collaboration.
Try these 6 project management tips during your next team project:
1. Assign a Team Leader
Team leaders should follow up on what is going on in the project and whether team members are on track to complete their part of the project in time.
- The role of the team leader should be rotated amongst all team members to allow each of them to practice team leadership
2. Set Goals
Project management begins with goal setting.
- If the driving question was given to students, it can dictate the final goal because the driving question provides a clear sense of the problem they are trying to solve or the product they want to build
- If they are in charge of coming up with the driving question, they need to look at the big picture and define what they want to accomplish and what the final product will look like
3. Identify Key Info for Each Phase
Students need to understand the problem they are trying to solve or the product they are trying to build, beginning by identifying the topics that are absolutely necessary to understand in order to accomplish it
- Based on the topics they identified, students need to break down the problem into project phases needed to solve the problem or create the product. If students use Project Pals lesson plans or templates, those phases may already be defined for them
- Teachers may choose to define these phases for students ahead of time
- Students may decide that all project phases will be done by all team members and assign specific parts of each phase to specific students
- Students may also decide to allocate different phases to specific students to complete
4. Create Tasks and Subtasks
- Teachers may start this step by providing a list of tasks per project phase that all students need to perform
- Students can then create a series of subtasks that they designate to specific team members to complete
- The team leader needs to follow up on the the entire task list and make sure team members are performing their jobs in time (and give them a push if they are lagging behind)
5. Choose and Implement Strategies
- Self-directed teams are able to determine what strategies they will use in order to complete their tasks
- Students will select the resources and materials that they need to use
- Students will also decide on the processes that will work best for them
- Teachers will monitor students’ choices and make recommendations when warranted
6. Monitor, Adjust, and Problem-Solve
As students work on their projects, they'll encounter problems that they'll need to solve.
- Things may break or plans may change. The practice of handling these situations will grow students into problem-solvers and critical thinkers
- Students must monitor their progress and adjust their approaches as they go
- The team leader has a crucial role in monitoring the entire project, developing their leadership skills
I've witnessed far too many projects fail due to a lack of project management. Getting students accustomed to these steps can gradually turn them not just into expert project managers, but also lead to successful project completion.