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!