Wednesday, February 6, 2013

PBL Design Deep Dive –What Products, and How Many?

Charity Allen BIE National Faculty

When designing a project, teachers frequently ask, “Should my students/teams create:

  • The same product with the same focus or topic?”
  • The same product, but with a different focus or topic?”
  • A different product with the same focus or topic?"
  • A different product, but with a different focus or topic?” 

As you have grown accustomed to in PBL, there is no ONE “right” answer to this question. However, I would like to share how four teachers approached this issue.

The “same product with the same focus or topic” is often a good option in the elementary grades, or in the secondary grades when the project has a narrow scope of content and/or short duration.

One project that fit this bill was a math project designed to teach systems of linear equations and processes to collect, organize and represent mathematical data. The project was anchored in an authentic controversy. The teacher had recently read about the Boston Marathon Committee’s disputed decision to prohibit the use of MP3 devices for runners competing in the race. Their rationale, you ask? They cited the possibility that runners could enhance their performance with music. Could runners pace themselves to a beat? Could they get an emotional performance boost from music? Would it create an unfair advantage?

The teacher asked the driving question, “How can we develop an evidence-based recommendation to the White Rock Marathon Committee regarding the use of MP3 devices?” Students began the project by designing an experiment to test whether or not music could make your heart beat faster. Following their experimentation, they collected and organized their data using systems of linear equations, as the basis for their recommendation to the White Rock Marathon Committee.

Every student produced the same product with the same focus or topic: a presentation with visual aids and a written recommendation. The project did not involve a lot of “choice,” but students had the opportunity to share their “voice” – their recommendation for or against MP3 devices.

The “same product, but with a different focus or topic” option is sometimes strategically selected because of the complex nature of the product itself, which must be carefully scaffolded by the teacher during the project process.

I saw a good example of this in a Humanities classroom for a project on the history of some major world religions and negative contemporary stereotypes about them. Students were teamed in expert groups to study one religion – Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism – and produce the same product: a podcast, using the history of the religion to debunk false stereotypes against that religion. The teacher wanted to scaffold all students in the use of Audacity, a voice recording and sound editing tool, so selecting a singular product type was a strategic decision.

The “different product with the same focus or topic” option makes sense when the project in anchored in a specific problem or specific content, but students could feasibly “show what they know, can do or think” in a variety of ways. This is a good option for teachers who feel confident and comfortable scaffolding the simultaneous development of different products, performances, presentations or services. Some teachers allow for product choice, but with limits, by providing a “menu” of options.

I worked with a teacher once who wanted to “PBLize” his persuasive writing unit. The school and his students had been abuzz with a recent tragedy involving a group of students who had gotten into a scuffle over an iPod at a public transportation stop. Sadly, during the fight, one of the boys pushed another boy into an oncoming bus and he died. The prosecution was seeking to have the boy tried as an adult for manslaughter, which in Texas would open the door for a possible death penalty sentence.

The teacher challenged students to share their perspective on the controversial issue through a variety of persuasive writing product options: a letter to the editor, a letter to the judge or legal teams, a position statement, a debate, a blog, an editorial, or the script for a live newscast or podcast. If students had their own ideas, he welcomed the opportunity to “consult” with them on additional product possibilities.

The “different product, but with a different focus or topic” option has the broadest possible scope. It can be powerful because of the potential for students to tailor the project work tightly to their strengths, interests and passions. The teacher has to be a skilled facilitator who is comfortable not having all the right answers and who knows how to help students learn to learn by modeling process skills during the project.

A great example of this comes from High Tech High in San Diego in the form of the Media Saves the Beach interdisciplinary project. The project was launched with an authentic newspaper article describing an authentic problem – the recent state funding cuts for beach and bay water quality testing, which could expose beachgoers to harmful bacteria. Students were challenged to write their own driving questions in response to the issue. One student group asked, “How can San Diegans reduce their impact on the North Pacific Gyre?” Students formed teams who each selected a different focus – a specific beach or bay location to study – and decided what products, performances, presentations and/or services they would develop to raise awareness about the issues and make recommendations to the public.

So, to decide what makes the most sense for their project, teachers need to think carefully about the scope of content, what’s most authentic in the project’s real-world context, and how comfortable they would be in scaffolding the development of a variety of products, performances, presentations and/or services.


  1. Interesting and with Deep insight that helps resolve question one has for Types of products!!

  2. These choices provide a scope for conducting a PBL project pertaining to the learning targets.

    Priyanka Gandhi

  3. PBL encourages continuous scaffolding to perpetuate academic, social, and personal development. However, as fun and simple as it sounds, educators must always take into consideration the challenge of acquiring resources but not be too limited by it.