Project Planning Paralysis

I have a love/hate affair with projects.

I love them because students get to choose what they do.

I hate them because students get to choose what they do.


It boils down to three things for me: judgement, control, and fear.

I find myself checking if I think this project choice is worthy of our class time. I wonder if the project they choose is going to be something I know anything about. I am fearful that even if I overcome both these hurdles, there is still the judgement of teachers or parents who may not see the value in the project choice.

I have a long history with student choice. I won’t call it agency because, for much of the time, I found myself setting the parameters for the choices. Ultimately, I want kids to have a voice, I want them to learn through something they love to do.

My fifth grade Design students have been eager to have more say in what we do. I wanted to respect that so we started looking at what “Design” was and I opened up the floor for them to choose their next design project. But I couldn’t help myself and I started throwing in “rules” to hamper their freedom of choice. Before I knew it, I had created a framework for their projects of my making. It looks like this (and I still am not sure if I like it or not):


I created this, if I am to be honest, out of fear that should my kids stop at step one, “PLAY”, other people may judge the worthiness of them doing so. Who are these “others” that have so much control over my instinct to let my kids play, that I would go and create four more hoops for them to jump through?

This is where I am struggling at the moment in my quest for agency. Where do scaffolds come in? How can we help our students with things like authentic empathy or exposure to the Global Goals as a springboard for design? Who is to say what is purposeful and what is not?

Here is an example from one student:

After doing a “tournament of champions” with all the ideas of things that could be done in Design (similar to this one below) a student chose: Minecraft. 

Grade 5 Design.001
Example of how the kids each chose the thing they wanted to “Play” with in Design.

Students were then re-introduced to the Sustainable Development Goals (something they were already familiar with). This is where they would connect “Play” with “Problem”.

They then needed to “Pitch” an idea: what were they going to make? Do? Create? And then I wanted them to think about why? What was their “Purpose”?

Here’s one example:

Grade 5 Design1.001

“Plan” made it’s way in when I saw that many kids didn’t quite know where to get started. Or, to be fair, they did know (they started to Play!) but I wanted something more concrete.

Even as I write this I am questioning the whole thing. How much interference is too much? How much freedom is too much?

How do you make this work in your school?

10 thoughts on “Project Planning Paralysis”

  1. Hey, Sonya! What I’ve gravitated toward over the past 5 years is a scaffold in which there are various paths my students can take in the class (robotics, electronics, design tech, video production, CAD/CAM) and for each path there are an initial set of proscribed lessons for which they have to show mastery before they can go further. These lessons include classroom basics, safety, and the foundational concepts within that sub-discipline. Mastery takes just a few days for some to complete…others need/take longer. After that, they begin to have a wider choice, with several projects/units to choose from but with fairly strong structure. Once they’ve completed some of these, the choices open up wider, including a “build-your-own” project. Many students never choose to take that one on, possibly because I ask for thorough documentation.

    You can see this (somewhat) in action on last year’s high-school site, (look at the “Building Directory” in the employee tools). This year’s site is currently under serious revision for a very changed class next year (moving very in line with the description above!).

    1. Matthew! Your work is AMAZING! I need a week off to just sit down and go through it all. Really impressive. I am particularly interested given that I am teaching MYP Design next year. I will definitely be in touch!

  2. I have these thoughts too. My preferred operating style is to introduce a task and let students get started and then see if I need to step in and help. I hate when I feel I am interfering. There are times when I feel like a knotless thread but I do make myself step back and let them have a good go. And if I do step in and interfere, I can let them see why I did.

    1. I am always seeking that ‘perfect’ balance of agency and scaffold. It seems elusive to me but I know the balance exists. I am interested in seeing how we can keep this in mind for PYPX.

  3. Great post! I’m also struggling with this kind of things. Last time I overdid “teaching” and this year I think I’ve let them doing their own projects too soon. Maybe next year I’ll be somehow closer to perfect 😉
    Or… from another perspective – preparing for some project making, robotics and coding competitions – I’ll take recipe:
    1. already done project – copy it
    2. understand how it works and why
    3. test/change/try/explore to confirm understanding
    4. think of your own project
    5. learn what you need to do it
    6. find similar projects – explore them
    7. do your own
    Trying, making mistakes, trying again… one day we’ll be experts 🙂

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