Five Aspects of PBL Teachers as Coach

Note: I wrote this post last winter before Coach Beilein left for Cleveland. I decided to post as is, without changes, because Beilein is still the same amazing coach even though he broke our hearts when he left.

We have already destroyed the strawman myth that Project Based Learning classrooms are chaos with the teacher acting as a glorified babysitter. But I want to dig deeper into the teacher’s role as a coach in the PBL framework. What does it look like in the wild?

Think about coaches that you know in any sport. Does their job seem easy, slow-paced, or passive? Not if they are any good! Coaching is an active intercession with athletes built on personal relationships. Coaches spend hundreds of hours preparing and working with their teams, even though they are never on the court during the game. Coaches don’t play, but they change lives!

I would like to use one of my favorite coaches as an example for this post, John Beilein, head coach of the University of Michigan men’s basketball team. He is a renowned offensive innovator and teacher of young men. I have watched him grow in his craft the past 12 seasons at Michigan. Here are five key aspects to his coaching style that translate to PBL.

Skill Building

John Beilein starts every season by practicing basic skills. He begins with a focus on balance and how to stand when you pass and catch the basketball. He drills players on the proper use of their pivot foot and being aware of their body position at all times. Freshman players are always surprised by the attention to detail and the focus on drills that they haven’t done since middle school. Beilein knows the effort spent on the fundamentals will make all of the difference between wins and losses later. And his teams consistently lead the country in fewest turnovers due to his emphasis on the fundamentals. 

PBL teacher’s primary job is to develop students’ skills. We all know that information is free and ubiquitous on the internet, but the coach focuses on skills such as literacy, computation, and research. PBL coaches want deeper learning. It is not enough for a student to memorize an algorithm, instead they should understand how to problem solve and be able to transfer to new situations. PBL coaches teach students how to be self directed learners. 


Coaches don’t just roll the balls out on the floor and say “Start practice.” Beilein spends countless hours watching film, studying offensive and defensive philosophies, and designing plays. He has numerous assistants who help, including a strength and conditioning coach that develops players’ bodies. Players are not all treated the same. Each one has a personalized workout and nutrition plan designed to help them grow where needed.

No teacher just shows up to school without a plan. In PBL, most of the planning is front loaded: designing the focus of the project, finding community partners, and choosing content standards to study and assess. PBL coaches also need to personalize their planning with scaffolding as students need it and differentiation based on skills, interests, and abilities. A well designed PBL project is like a master game plan against a rival opponent.

Continuous Growth

John Beilein doesn’t get 5 star recruits to come to Michigan. He gets many “under the radar” players that he develops into strong ball players over their time in his program. He also doesn’t have many “one and done” stars who only play for the one mandated season before leaving for the NBA. Freshman rarely play much in Beilein’s complicated system as there is a huge learning curve. All division 1 scholarship players were stars on their high school team so it can be a culture shock to have watch from the bench that first year.

But after time in the weight room and developing their skills, Beilein has a strong history of turning 3 and 4 stars into NBA draft picks. Players have to trust the process and learn the system before they see the court in gametime. They must learn to communicate and perform their role on the team.

PBL teachers are all about growth mindset with their students. Students don’t show up to class with highly developed SEL skills. The PBL teacher has students practicing skills such as communication, collaboration, and critical thinking daily. PBL coaches intentionally teach, practice, and assess students’ project management skills such as handling resources, sticking to a timeline, and successful collaboration with their team. Much like Beilein’s players, students turn into strong leaders ready to tackle global issues when they graduate. 

Developing Confidence

One of the most important aspects of coaching young people is building their confidence. I love Beilein’s quote about shooting, “Better to go 0-8 than 0-2.” Beilein encourages aggressiveness and failing forward. He is a motivator and encourages risk taking (within the offense of course). 

Most young people are trying to figure out who they are as a person and have not yet found their voice. PBL teachers use relationships to build up their students’ confidence. They challenge kids with complex problems and then encourage them to persevere with solutions. PBL coaches don’t punish mistakes with low grades, but support risk taking and exploration. Many students discover skills, interests, and talents in the midst of projects that lead to careers and passions that they had not previously considered. 


John Beilein has always been considered an offensive genius whose teams were difficult to defend, but his teams were thought by some to be soft and weak on the defensive end. Then a few years ago Beilein hired a “defensive coordinator” and the past two seasons Michigan transformed into a top defensive team in the country! Even after decades of coaching, John Beilein demonstrated his ability to grow personally and adapt to the strengths of his players. 

A PBL teacher is continually growing professionally and learning new strategies to strengthen their classroom approach. PBL teachers are constantly learning new protocols and developing differentiated scaffolding. Students are different every year so you can’t just roll out the same exact projects. They need to be tweaked for this year’s students giving room for their voice and choice.


Active PBL teaching requires 100% of a person’s energy, even though they aren’t “playing” in the game. PBL coaching is definitely not a spectator sport. Teachers may not be in the front of the room lecturing in the traditional sense, but they are using personal relationships to develop students’ skills and confidence. High Quality PBL coaching leads to holistic student development that goes beyond test scores to impact the world.

For more ideas on coaching students in PBL, check out this post too!

When Society Fails Students

I recently visited an alternative education high school where I had taught for a year. The school uses PBL and students are genuinely loved and cared for. It was great seeing the staff and hearing success stories of former students. But unfortunately one horrible story sticks out in my mind.

Two of my former students are in prison to be tried for murder. One of them allegedly shot a kid in the face during a planned robbery of a drug deal. This student had some struggles at school, but I did not expect to hear about 2nd degree murder.

This caused me to reflect on some other former students who didn’t make it through high school. One made an online bomb threat to a former middle school that he previously attended, shutting down the school and terrifying that community. Another was arrested for armed robbery after breaking into a house with a gun. A third was shot in the lower body (but fully recovered), presumably in a drug transaction that went bad. All three of these boys never got in trouble at school.

You know what else all four of these boys had in common? They were strong academic students. They did their work and did not need much support to be successful in the classroom. Attendance was sometimes an issue for them, but when present they worked hard and did quality work.

These boys did not need better lesson plans, clearer learning targets written on the board, more engaging content, or any other “best practices” to be implemented in their classes. There are no magic teaching strategies that would have helped prevent their actions.

Instead they needed comprehensive counseling and mental health services, mentors, and effective community programs to help them and their families.

This is just a sampling of stories from my short stay at this school. There are rampant substance abuse problems and these students face pretty much every horrible challenge that you can imagine in their homes and communities.

You know what is not going to help these students “make it?” Better math and ELA instruction. This school uses PBL, focuses on SEL, and borrows practices from Restorative Justice and Mindfulness. All of these are wonderful education strategies, and help many students find success and graduate. But those who work in these settings know that none of it is ever enough to reach every student.

So I wake up early today, unable to sleep, in my comfortable, safe, middle class life. I wonder about the effects of second hand trauma on the staff who have dedicated YEARS to loving and serving a struggling community and its students. Little is done to support the adults in the building and look after their mental well-being.

Then I consider the politicians’ solutions to failing schools: start a charter, more accountability through standardization and mandatory testing, meanwhile cutting funds that schools are “wasting.” There is too much blaming of teachers who put their heart and soul on the line every day for kids.

The highest budget item for any district is paying the staff. Cutting school funding means cutting either staff pay and benefits or eliminating people. Often times the first people to go are the “support staff” including counselors and social workers. We can not solve complex problems by having less adults in schools for kids. Anyone who has worked in schools knows that smaller class sizes and more support is helpful for all schools, but is a necessity in low income, high trauma schools.

Schools can not fix all of society’s ills. The problems are systemic in society, not just in schools. Poverty in the form of unemployment and underemployment causes very real and traumatic issues for so many families. Schools can not be held responsible and culpable for every lack in children’s lives. Whole communities need to be restored.

We need comprehensive programs for these communities. These schools need more funding for mental health, counselors, and social workers. It would be impossible to have too many caring adults in our schools. We need mentorships for every child by community members. Teachers do not have the time or capacity to do this alone.

Will we ever get beyond the rhetoric of naming laws “No Child Left Behind” or “Every Student Succeeds Act” and actually fund adequate mental health and social care for students and work to end systemic poverty?

Wait, I Can Use Direct Instruction in PBL?

Project Based Learning is a student centered framework that encourages inquiry through research, problem solving, interviews, and exploration. It values student groups dialoguing together to construct their own meaning about important content questions. It is a natural fit for teaching methods such as discovery learning, simulations, design your own experiment, and vertical whiteboards. PBL encourages students to build on their background knowledge through experiences and exposure to new information.

But what about when there are important gaps between what students know and need to know to solve the problems embedded into the project? As teachers, we have an obligation to meet the required standards of our district and state and district. How can we be assured that all students learn the necessary content in PBL? Teachers do have a responsibility in PBL to constantly use formative assessments to make sure students are on track. And it is not “against the rules” to use direct instruction when needed!

Direct instruction gets a bad rap, but pretty much every teacher uses it. We know that lectures by themselves are one of the least effective learning strategies. We also know that all students will not “magically discover” important concepts without teacher direction and input. So how can PBL teachers effectively provide direct instruction? Here are a variety of effective methods that I have used. Most of these strategies assume a PBL framework with project work time happening for the class as a whole, while a subset of students are attending the workshop with the teacher or expert.


Stations are an elementary staple that are a natural fit with PBL. Student groups move in rotation to different spots in the room and complete various tasks. One station can be with the teacher, who leads a mini-lesson on a core concept. Benefits include movement, variety of tasks, and allowing the teacher to focus on a small group of students at once. Stations work great with literacy, reading, and mathematical concepts. Middle and high school teachers should try using stations too.

Role Based

If students are assigned roles during the project, consider a workshop for just one set of roles. Give the class project work time and then call out just the editors or the tech gurus from each group for specific instructions or resources. If you aren’t using specific roles, have each group choose one representative to attend the workshop and report back to the group. Role based workshops encourage collaboration as the groups depend on each other for information and resources.

5 Minute “Lecture”

Instead of having students come to your teacher station, go to them! Prepare a 5 minute mini-lesson based on a gap in student understanding or an unanswered “Need to Know.” Give students an extended block of work time. Work your way around the room checking in with each group’s progress. In a dialogue style “deliver” the mini lesson during a group conversation. Students will be focused, as you are only talking to their group and you can easily check for understanding. By the end of the hour, you have effectively met with each group and incognito taught your content.

Flip the Script

How many times have you given a lecture and then assigned a related practice activity, only to have half the class need help getting started? We have all been frustrated when students don’t pay attention to our whole class instruction. Instead try giving students the practice activity first, knowingly that most will not be able to do it. Allow five minutes of struggle and when the inevitable hands start popping up say, “Looks like we could use a workshop on this.” Then give the instruction that you traditionally gave first. Many students need to experience the struggle before they are ready to listen. Some students won’t need any help and they can continue on their own without you!


One of the weaknesses of whole class lectures is that they do not allow for differentiation. They tend to treat every student as needing the exact, same information. With PBL, it makes sense to use formative assessments to determine which students need specific help. Then the following day, mandatory workshops can be given for a subset of students who have misunderstandings, were absent, or just need more practice with the teacher. Many of the requirements for IEP’s or scaffolds for EL students can be given in this format (without labeling students) but also offered for general education students who need help too.


Voluntary workshops are some of the most powerful and effective ones. When students choose to come, instead of being forced, they tend to be focused. But when you offer a voluntary workshop, some students who need help won’t choose to come. Give the workshop without them. As soon as it is over, check in with those students. Tell them, “Looks like you are struggling with this. I just gave a workshop on it. You should have been there.” And then walk away and repeat with the rest of the students who needed the workshop but didn’t attend. Once you have made these rounds, announce to the class that you have decided to repeat the workshop and given the “teacher eye” to all of those students and make sure they attend. The goal is to teach students to advocate for themselves and to learn to seek help when they need it.

Just in Time

Another variation of Flipping the Script, is Just in Time instruction. It makes no pedagogical sense to teach students about something before they are ready to learn it or perform a task related to it. They won’t listen and you will end up reteaching it. An example of Just in TIme teaching would be how to do a works cited page. Give students the requirements and resources for how to properly do one, but not a lecture. Wait until after rough drafts are done and a few days before the paper is due. Project an exemplary works cited page and ask students to pull up theirs and compare. If their works cited page doesn’t look like it should then have them come to a workshop on how to do it.

Student Requested

Student Requested workshops are a subset of Voluntary ones. As part of the PBL process and culture, students should be able to request any workshop at anytime. Importantly, the teacher does not need to lead them immediately. Oftentimes the teacher will tell students that the workshop will happen tomorrow based on scheduling and realistically to give time to prepare for meaningful learning. Student Requested workshops are excellent indicators that students are engaged in deeper learning.

Student Led

Teachers are not the only ones who can lead workshops. Outside experts can be a great resource, especially in areas that the teacher may not know details about. Student Led workshops are powerful because they empower student leaders as they teach their classmates. One area that I always use Student Led workshops with is technology. At the high school level, I don’t teach how to use tech tools, but expect students to figure it out by themselves. Every class has some technology nerds, and I designate them the experts to help classmates.

Whole Class

A pattern of the previous formats is that they are all smaller workshops, not with your whole class. Smaller workshops are more powerful because they are focused and personalized. A whole class workshop with the traditional lecture is a format that for the most part, I try to avoid. Instead use whole class instruction as a starting point to go over the expectations and agenda for the day or as an ending point to reflect and summarize the learning of the day. I rarely “deliver content” in a whole class style of lecture with note taking. When I do, I record it so students can watch it later at their own pace.


While I avoid whole class lectures, I do have whole class activities such as watching videos, reading articles, and class discussions. Rather than a lecture, where the teacher is the source of knowledge, try using a variety of sources to expose students to relevant content. Then structure conversations using protocols to promote equity. Some favorite protocols include Socratic Seminars, Fishbowls, Say Something, Spider Web, Speed Dating, and Chalk Talk. Protocols keep students at the center of the learning, encouraging participation and reflection on their learning.


Don’t let boring lectures dominate your class. Don’t fall for the PBL teacher as babysitter myth that students are 100% on their own either. Teachers should be providing instruction to students throughout the PBL process as needed. The key is accurate formative assessment of where each student is at, so that appropriate support can be provided in the right way at the right time.

What to Do When a Project Fails

“Failure is success in progress.” —Albert Einstein

“At the outset of a project, enthusiasm and idealism are high. As educators, we approach our project-based learning (PBL) with an eye toward success, but what happens when things don’t turn out as planned?

My co-teacher and I launched a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) video project on World War I and World War II in our integrated American history and English language arts class. The project married the concept of CYOA books with videos where viewers choose what to do next. Rather than have each group make its own video, we decided to have our whole classes divide up the tasks to create one giant adventure.

Students were placed in different teams based on self-identified skills, and roles included writers, actors, directors, artists for props, lighting and camera operators, and video editors. Each class created a storyboard on a whiteboard wall, plotting all of the paths and choices like a sideways tree. Groups of students began writing scripts for each scene, including details of the setting and props.

The students did an excellent job of distributing roles and diagramming the big-picture storyboard, but they struggled with the rest of the project. Ultimately, we were unable to finish the videos, but the challenges gave us new insights on how to successfully implement this type of project in the future.”

Go to Edutopia to read the rest of this post and learn about the 5 things that I learned.

When Students Don’t Work

Going to school isn’t a job. Students don’t get paid. And yes, they are forced to be there. Therefore I am always hesitant to apply business advice to schools. But more and more I am seeing that project management strategies often do apply to student groups in PBL.

In 4 Reasons Good Employees Lose their Motivation on the Harvard Business Review, they identify the following causes of a lack of motivation:

  • Values mismatch
  • Lack of self efficacy
  • Disruptive emotions
  • Attribution errors

In order to help an employee find motivation, the the proper “trap” should be identified leading to applying the appropriate solution. I believe this can be adapted to leading a class of collaborative groups using PBL.

Values Mismatch

This trap can be summarized as “I don’t care enough to do this.” I would argue that this is the most prevalent motivational problem that we have in school because of our one size fits all, mandated curriculum. PBL is a great approach because it gives the teacher freedom to customize their class to their students’ interests and abilities.

The first step in fixing a values mismatch is to know your students. Build relationships with your kids and discover their passions. Then PBL projects can be designed to connect with them. I have even designed an entire class project with only one student in mind, that is struggling to engage in my class. Students will find more value in a class where they have a positive relationship with the teacher and they feel like the content addresses issues that matter to them.

Lack of Self Efficacy

In this trap students are saying “I don’t think that I am able to do this.” Except students rarely say this out loud. Instead they avoid the task with disruptive behavior or shut down by sleeping or daydreaming. Oftentimes this student tries to hide the embarrassment of lack of ability or belief in themselves from both the teacher and other students. It is crucial that teachers see through these smokescreens and identify the real cause of student actions.

Again the first step is knowing your students and then applying the appropriate scaffolds to help them succeed. Have you identified your students who are EL or special ed? What about the students who don’t have an official “label” but need support? Show students quality examples and give them outlines and other scaffolds to get started. Acknowledge when they are successful to help them build confidence. Most importantly remove scaffolds when students don’t need them anymore and point out the growth to students.

“Remember at the beginning of the year, you needed my help to multiply fractions. Now you can do it all by yourself!”

Disruptive Emotions

Sometimes students are feeling that “I am too upset to do this.” One of the reasons that I like to start class by meeting kids at the door is to check on their emotional state when they get there. This goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If students are angry or depressed, then they will not be able to focus on school.

Be a caring listener. Have a private conversation with the student and hear out what is bothering them. I often ask students if they would like to talk to a counselor or another trusted adult if I can’t give them the time that they need during class. We rarely can fix whatever is bothering them in the middle of a busy class but students must know that we care about their well being more than the content that we teach. Ask students if they think that can do the tasks of the class that day. Once they have been truly heard, most students can focus on what they need to.

Attribution Errors

This trap is when students say, “I don’t know what went wrong with this.” I think in schools this is usually an avoidance ploy of the above, Lack of Self Efficacy variety. Students (and adults too) don’t want to admit failures or weaknesses so they shift to excuses of “I was too busy” or blaming group members for not completing tasks.

One solution that can help student groups is teaching them to hold each other accountable. I like to use a Student Scrum Board or Trello for groups to regulate themselves. With a clear plan for project management, then students can focus on the actual problem of lack of skills or perhaps a values mismatch as being the real reason that work is not being completed.

None of these are magic, but it is always important to know our students and to properly assess why they may not be successful on a given day. I also think that it is critical to their growth to acknowledge what has been holding them back and how they have overcome it. Then the next time that they are feeling unmotivated they can learn to self analyze the cause and self correct.