Does my Project Need a “Pre-ject?”

I get a lot of interesting questions in my Project-based Learning (PBL) workshops, but this one threw me for a loop. First, there’s something that just doesn’t quite sound right about the word “pre-ject.” It took me a moment to figure out what the participant was actually asking me and, at first blush, I wanted to just say no. When it became clear that a lot of other people were listening, I realized I had a question worth considering.

So, does your project need a “pre-ject?”

Well, that depends on the definition. As I probed a little deeper, I came to understand that what they were asking was different from what I was thinking. Bingo, we had a learning opportunity!

By the definition some other coach had given them a “pre-ject” is a canned and heavily structured opening activity that’s a microcosm of the larger project. It might involve what is also known as an “entry event,” but in addition to that it might have specific learning stations, and specific tasks such as forming “Know/Need to Know” lists that activate and identify students’ prior knowledge. Now, these are good practices for PBL, but what the teachers really wanted to know is whether every project had to start out with this exact, canned formula.

To that, I answered: No.

The essence of effective project-based learning is empowering student curiosity and inquiry about a topic, and noting will kill that faster than using a canned formula for launching inquiry every single time.
Yet that doesn’t mean that “pre-jects” are a bad idea, if you think about them a little bit differently.

When I think of a “pre-ject,” I think of a formative assessment opportunity a teacher might use prior to launching the project, one that helps you determine whether students are ready for something larger.
Sometimes these aren’t just a good idea, they’re absolutely necessary. Consider the following examples:

“Getting to Know You”
It’s early in the year, and you want to do a small team project with low stakes in order to determine whether your students collaborate effectively on teams. For example, you might have your students work in teams to recommend ways to reorganize your classroom in a way that works for them. Remember, every class of students is different! Don’t erase that difference by making them conform to YOUR room! Find out how they might work together to make your space work for them. Then, use that learning experience to gather data on which students have effective collaboration skills, and which students have room to grow. That’s a nice “pre-ject” that will set the tone for the rest of your projects.

“Everyone on Board”
Alternatively, perhaps there’s a skill set that everyone really needs to master prior to launching a larger project, and you want to offer a practice round. For example, let’s say you plan to do a stained-glass window project later in the year to beautify your school, or maybe a local senior center. Before letting kids cut—and likely waste—a lot of glass, why not first have them practice glass cutting by using broken pieces of glass from LAST year’s project in order to make little mosaics with differently cut shards. These mosaics don’t need to be elaborate. They don’t even need to be beautiful. This pre-ject just needs to involve enough glass cutting that you know all students are ready to make more elaborate cuts later on. When your students know they can do that, then they know that they can realize the genius of their stained-glass window designs. That sets everyone up for a very rewarding project later on.

“A Little Help Here?”
Finally, remember that you don’t always have to have all the answers worked out in advance, especially if you’re working with students with some PBL experience. Let’s say you want to tackle a really BIG problem in your community, maybe obesity or the drop out rate. Rather than dump this giant problem on your students only to watch them flounder, you might use a “pre-ject” to find out how the students would tackle a big problem like that. Let your students develop their own DQs and paths of inquiry, and then empower them to follow through in working with you to design the project that interests them, or that they think will really make a difference. In this case, your “pre-ject” will be a sterling example of best practice in PBL, because you’ll be a learner along with your students. That’s a project they’ll long remember, because it puts them on a higher level if they can learn to stand by you, rather than just learn to under-stand you.

So, does your project need a “pre-ject?” Considering some of these examples, I’d say yes, once in a while. Changing your “main course” menu is always a good thing if you want to stay in business, and if a “pre-ject” now and then can do that for you, don’t let the odd sound of the term get in your way.

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