The Lost Art of Project Planning (And How to Get It Back)
30 years ago, sets of encyclopedias cluttered reference shelves and our personal computers barely had enough power to run one program at a time off of an external floppy disk. Today, we have access to informational resources and productivity software that staggers the mind. Yet the hyper-modern world has brought with it a faster-paced tyranny of content coverage in our classrooms, personal technology and networks with which we feel we must engage on a 24/7 basis, and other modern-day energy-sapping practices. Planning in general, and major project planning in particular, has suffered as a result.
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The greatest gift we can give ourselves is the time and focus it takes to do project planning right. If you can't give yourself that, then you can't expect (you have to hope instead) that projects will run smoothly or meet the needs of the people impacted by it. Having the time to plan, or not, is the single most critical deciding factor in the success of this process.
But let's assume you're going to give yourself the time you need to plan effectively. Where do you start?
Begin with the End in Mind
When planning a lesson, it can be useful to start at the finish line. Beginning with the end learning objective and designing a lesson backwards is a hallmark of strategies such as the Understanding by Design (UbD) instructional framework. The same applies to project planning.
Perhaps you are undertaking a major project at school, such as starting a peer tutoring program, implementing a positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) committee, or writing the curriculum for a new course offering. You may want to start from the premise of what that program or curriculum looks like in final form and work backwards to site or classroom-specific needs. Backwards design is also useful when creating or even introducing projects to your students in the classroom. Instead of beginning with a handout of requirements, start by handing out the assessment rubric and, if you have assigned the project before, show the class several examples of successful student work.
I was once tasked with writing, developing, and implementing an advanced placement course at the high school level. Instead of composing learning objectives or building a curriculum map from beginning to end at the outset of the initiative, I decided to start with several sample examples of finished syllabi, fully fleshed out curriculum maps, and lists of readings and resources. Beginning with multiple examples of finished products helped me work backwards to what my own syllabus, objectives, and educational resources might look like.
Lay It All Out
In The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, the 29th law exhorts the reader to "Plan all the way to the end." By taking the time to think about every step, every potential roadblock, every possible contingency, you will experience fewer surprises and find yourself improvising less. Too often, project planning turns into an exercise of building the airplane while flying it. Sometimes that can be unavoidable, but in most cases it just represents a lack of time invested in laying out the entire process, cradle to grave, in advance.
For the classically-minded project planner, nothing beats a Gantt chart. Gantt charts provide a visual representation of tasks to be completed, timeframes for completion, and list people responsible for each task. You can create a Gantt chart with materials as simple as a piece of paper and a writing utensil.
For those who prefer a more professional layout, you can create Gantt charts on a spreadsheet or a dedicated software program. If you go the spreadsheet route, keep in mind that your learning management system (LMS) might seamlessly integrate with Google sheets or a similar program, allowing you to house everything in one place and even teach students how to use this organization tool as well.
Others assert that Gantt charts are so early 20th century. There are plenty of Gantt-chart alternative ideas floating around the web. Some people prefer to work with free-form mind-mapping tools as part of their planning routine. You may also find it useful to maintain both a long-range and short-term planner, with specific time built into the short-term planner to work on long-range project benchmarks. Regardless of the system that works best for you, have one for laying out every step of your projects and there will be fewer surprises and better results.
Planning Effective Classroom Projects
You are not alone if you feel that you could be more aggressively pursuing a strategy for your classroom projects. As an example, Kathy Baron summarized the following six-step strategy utilized by a middle school in Maine:
- Plan a compelling, complex, standards-based project relevant to students and the larger community.
- The final product should be comprehensive, differentiated, of high quality, and allow students to archive and share their work in a digital format.
- Align the project to professional goals and include professionals in the field. Students should present their final product to the aligned professional audience.
- Ensure that the appropriate resources are identified and made available for students.
- Use a shared planning calendar to set aside time and resources and to keep all stakeholders on the same page. This would be a great opportunity to explicitly teach students one or more of the organizational strategies above and to activate the power of your learning management system.
- Incorporate a culminating experience, such as a community presentation to an audience of professional adults. This is where students get to show off their high quality work with real-world implications!
Reclaim the Lost Art of Project Planning
Adults need to take back their time to plan meaningful, achievable projects and students need to be explicitly taught these important skills. Project planning is a perfect expression of the necessary executive functioning skills that are critical to student success in school and life. You can set the tone by modeling effective project planning in your own work, and you have the power to pass along those critical skills to your students with each major classroom initiative.