When it comes to planning Project Based Learning (PBL), one of the things we hear a lot is that teachers want to “frontload” content material before doing a project. By frontloading, we simply mean the common practice of a teacher explaining or “covering” content knowledge or skills at the beginning of a lesson or project.

Teachers will often ask: How can students do a project if I haven’t taught them the material yet? And yet the whole purpose of PBL is for the kids to learn the material by doing the project.

While this issue crops up for everyone, it seems to be more difficult to address in math courses. So we’ve asked Constructive Learning Design’s resident Math Coach Lance Bledsoe to help us answer a common question: How can Math teachers stop frontloading?

Here’s what he has to say.

Turning Dessert Projects Into Main Course Projects (PBL)

In the world of PBL, you often hear people talk about the difference between “main course projects” and “dessert projects.”

A dessert project is the kind of project I often had my students do. It’s called a dessert project because it typically comes at the end of a particular unit, after the students have already learned all the things they were supposed to learn in that unit. Dessert projects are always frontloaded. The content is taught first.

A Dessert Project on Geometric Transformations

For example, in my math classes, we’d have a unit on geometric transformations, which involved taking geometric shapes, drawing them on a set of x-y axes, moving them around in particular ways (translations, reflections, rotations, and dilations), and describing those movements in different ways.

If at the end of that unit I told my students, “Now, you’re going to take all that stuff you just learned about geometric transformations and you’re going to create a stop-motion video in which you show an object moving around using a series of those transformations,” that would be a dessert project. They already learned everything I wanted them to learn about transformations, and now they were going to use those newly-learned skills to create a video.

Creating a Main Course (PBL) Project on Geometric Transformations

But what if instead of teaching them about geometric transformations first, I began the unit by telling my students, “You’re going to create a stop-motion video in which you make a fish move thru the ocean using a series of geometric transformations; your video will have to demonstrate all four of each the following transformations: translation, reflection, rotation, and dilation. And you’ll also have to describe each of your transformations using function notation.”

It’s likely that one (or more) students would respond, “Wait, we don’t know how to do that! We don’t even know what translations and reflections and those other things are.”

Which allows the teacher to say, “That’s right, you’re going to have to learn those things in order to create your video.”

That would be a main course project.

A main course project is not something students do after they’ve learned some things; they learn them in the course of completing the project.

More on Projects vs. Project Based Learning

For another comparison of main course projects versus dessert projects, check out this table from Larmer, Mergendoller and Boss’s Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning, pg. 70:

Projects vs PBL Chart

How Do You Plan For Not Frontloading?

We asked Lance about his planning process, and he offered this simple starting point: Just give the kids the problem first.

In many ways, the dessert project example is just a project-based version of what many teachers do in their lessons every day. First, they teach their students how to do something (e.g., how to perform translations, reflections, etc.), and then they ask their students to do some more of that thing (e.g., complete these practice problems). This approach is often referred to as an “I-We-You” lesson format. First I (the teacher) will explain how to do something, then we will do some more of that thing as a whole class, and finally you (students) will practice doing that thing individually until you have mastered it.

PBL turns that model on its head by giving the students a challenging problem to solve, and then helping the students to develop the skills (i.e., master the standards) they need in order to solve the problem.

More Examples of Main Course or PBL Projects with No Frontloading

All of this talk about main course and dessert projects is fascinating, but it’s hard to understand the difference unless you can actually see the project. So, we asked Lance to create some examples.

These are by no means complete projects, but they provide a framework for getting started. We’ve intentionally left them incomplete, in order to showcase how the planning process for not frontloading can work.

Lance’s Fractions Project hits 3rd-5th grade math standards and is easily adaptable to incorporate Social Studies, Science and English standards as well.
His Quadratics Project addresses Math 1 standards.
His Stop Motion Video Project addresses some 8th grade geometry standards.


Do you have examples of Math projects that don’t require frontloading? We’d love to see them! Do you need help not frontloading? Give us a shout!

Photo of frontloading washing machine (get it? 🙂) by Anca Gabriela Zosin on Unsplash