The perfect topic is a personal interest or passion of the student’s that they know a little about but aren’t masters of. If they know too little about it, they won’t have a good personal context (motivation) to continue for the length of the project. They won’t have a starting point from which to begin researching. On the other hand, if they are already perfect at the topic, they won’t have much to research because they’ll have already mastered the topic. 

Picking a good topic is often very difficult for students.  Sometimes they’ll have no idea what they want to do and the world of possibilities overwhelm them. Sometimes they come in with a topic, but the brainstorming activities steer them in a different direction. Unfortunately, sometimes they come in with a product in mind and it’s difficult to steer them towards a topic – they don’t understand the difference between a goal (topic) and a product.

Let’s look at some examples…

✅ Great! These are possible inquiry topics!

  • I want to learn how to increase my endurance fitness. My product will be running a half marathon.
  • I want to learn how to sew. My product will be a dress.
  • I want to improve my leadership skills. My product will be acting as the stage manager for the school production.
  • I want to learn how arrange music. My product will be a performance in the Awards Assembly

😒 Ummm... Not quite... These aren't inquiry topics!

  • I will run a half marathon.
  • I will sew a dress.
  • I will be a stage manager.
  • I will arrange music.

Students who come in with definite product ideas sometimes have difficulties backtracking and figuring out why (personal context) they want to sew a dress or why it’s highly challenging (goal) or which global context will suit it best. They haven’t done all the hard work of setting up the inquiry first. 

I once had a Personal Project student who built a boat over the summer holidays so that he’d be already finished his PP at the start of grade ten. Our conversation went like this…

Me: So what topic are you thinking about for your PP?

Student: I built a boat.

Me:  Right. And what was your global context.

Student: I built a boat.

Me: Yes, I realize that. Why was your learning highly challenging for you? 

Student: I built a boat.

Me: What research skills did you come into the project with and what sources did you use in your literature review? 

Student: I BUILT A BOAT. 

As you can imagine, he was quite frustrated because he didn’t see the Personal Project as a learning inquiry, but rather he saw it as an end result. To him, the PP wasn’t about learning carpentry skills and exploring how he was expressing his craftsmanship. He just wanted to build a boat and he did.

How My Students Choose Their topics

I always start of by showing students what are silly topics and what are actual topics. Please don’t fool yourself into think that every student loves the Personal Project. When you have 63 moody grade 10s sitting in front of you, the best way to start the Personal Project off is to start with funny YouTube videos.

I always start with these three as examples of what NOT to do for a personal project:

Next, I show them examples of Personal Projects that are really meaningful. One of our students has a family member with Parkinson’s Disease. Her goal was to raise awareness for this disease through creating prosthetics that mimic the effects of the disease on the human body. 

I also talk to them about the Aboli Foundation, which was founded as a Personal Project. It runs three schools that provide healthcare, dental care, nutritious meals and educational resources for children in India. 

With this, I’m trying to highlight that the Personal Project can be something meaningful and important in their lives. Sure, some will just want to learn to sew… or to build a boat… but the best Personal Projects are those that impact other peoples’ lives. 

I love when audience participants leave the Personal Project exhibition and remark, “That project was so insightful. I wonder whether I could learn more about it…” or “Could I possibly get a copy of that book you made?”

Next, it’s time to brainstorm topics. Every year I have students tell me, “Oh, I don’t need to brainstorm – I already know what I’m doing.”  However, by the end of the session, they aren’t so sure because their worlds have opened up and they see so many more possibilities before them.

I like to use the funnel system. They brainstorm every single topic they know about, even if only very little. Next, they pick their favourite three and think, “Which of these could I sustain for the next 5 months, even when I’m tired and cranky?”  Once they have their favourite, they brainstorm everything they know about that individual topic. Next, they look at their list and ask themselves, “Which of these do I know enough about to do a long project on it, but I’m by no means an expert?”

Lastly, they have to choose the Global Context that will steer their project. This is on the topic page? Yes, because the topic is very general (learning to sew) and the global context is how it becomes specific. 

For more information on Personal Projects, go to the PP Global Context page. 

For more information on Music inquiries, go to the MYP Global Context page.