Project-Based Learning (PBL)

How to Authentically Use PBL Products

Knowing their work will be shown to a public audience is a powerful and positive motivation for students to produce great work.

April 24, 2024
mediaphotos / iStock

Too often, we ask students to demonstrate their learning through tests, essays, and lab reports that are only ever seen by themselves and the teacher before being stuffed into backpacks and forgotten. For some students, the desire to learn or the pursuit of a grade is motivation enough to perform well on these assessments. However, for many more, knowing their final projects will be displayed, presented, or performed for a public audience is the difference between students doing just enough to get it done and pushing themselves to, in the words of renowned teacher Ron Berger, produce “beautiful work” that genuinely reflects their learning.

Playing A Game

Sixty students from several Bay Area schools filter into the Block Community Hub in downtown Oakland, California, to participate in a Facing History & Ourselves Student Leadership Group meeting, where they’ll work together to hone their leadership skills and strategize about how to better their communities.

They break into groups of four, finding seats at small tables. A board game designed to break the ice is placed in the center of each table. 

These centerpieces aren’t traditional board games. They have instructions handwritten in Sharpies, cards cut in random shapes, and game pieces sculpted from art supplies excavated from classroom cupboards. The dozen games these young leaders will play are the final product of my colleague Ashley West’s economics and inequality unit in her 12th-grade government/economics course at ARISE High School. The Student Leadership Group gathering provided a second opportunity for this project-based learning (PBL) student product to come to life.

The final project, “Playing the Economy: A Board Game Project,” asked students to define a problem in the U.S. economy, research relevant data, and create a prototype of a game that comments on the issues revealed in the data. Every lesson leading up to this project was tracked in a “Board Game Preparation” document in which students would create game pieces that either progressed or impaired players of a game based on what they learned. After about two weeks of lessons alongside the board game prep, students had two days to curate independent research relevant to the topic of their game.

In groups of three to four students, they were asked to incorporate at least 16 pieces of research in the form of questions or actions in the game. Once the research was crafted to fit into the games, the design and prototype process began. After testing and revising their prototypes, students crafted a playable board with a purpose and rule book. Ready to play, students unveiled their games to be played with families, peers, and community members at a schoolwide exhibition. 

Students were tasked not only with uncovering the systemic advantages and subsequent disadvantages of our economy but also with extending this knowledge to others in a fun and functional way. As the date of the exhibition neared, students were buzzing to finalize the research in their game pieces and conducting countless play tests for playability feedback. In the “Board Game Room” at exhibition night, players were faced with economic challenges and could either overcome barriers created by the system or play the system as it was. The experience of playing these games with family and community members quickly revealed documented disparities of wealth, difficulties of access and opportunity, and the failures of economic policy to protect all people. Students created fun ways to engage others around the serious issues of economic dysfunction. 

The project was designed to foster student creativity while also building opportunities for meaningful research. It was an exploration of design thinking, where students had to reconcile ideation and usability. Ultimately, it was an exercise in authentically communicating a need for economic and social change to their community. Creative and authentic experiences inspire the association between learning and creation, action and transformation. 

Producing an Authentic Public Product

One key project-based learning design principle is student assessment through an authentic public product. This can take many shapes—a performance of monologues written from oral history interviews, a presentation of research findings to local officials, or a photography display at a museum. When designing for authenticity, an important question to consider is this: Does the product have genuine value and purpose beyond the walls of the classroom? 

When students know their projects are going to be viewed, read, heard, or even played by their families, peers, local officials, or other community members, it catalyzes motivation to do their best. Evidence of this motivation can be seen in the intricate Black History Month door designs around ARISE High School.

My colleague Ben Rosen and I led with the lens of authenticity when redesigning a prior project into the Black History Month Public Art project for our 11th-grade humanities course. Coinciding with Black History Month, the school had been engaged in an “advisory based” door-decorating contest. While some advisories were ready to jump in with ideas, the 11th-grade team noticed an overall lack of depth in the understanding/interest of our students in uplifting diverse Black voices from the past and present (many students named figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., or particular police shootings but didn’t have additional ideas). 

As a response to this, we shifted the previous year’s final product—a graphic art-based showcase of an event in history—into a research-based artistic design to compete for their advisory’s door-decorating contest. 

As the culminating assessment for their “African American History from 1619 to Reconstruction” unit, students were asked to research a historical and related present-day figure, movement, or event that showcased a form of resistance or agency. They then turned their research into the door-decoration design that they would propose in advisory the following week. Students linked figures such as Frederick Douglass to Cornel West, Harriet Tubman to “Border Angels” leaving water for migrants, and Phyllis Wheatley to Amanda Gorman. Each advisory class then voted, through a gallery walk process using stickers to identify their top choices, on the design they felt best answered the essential questions and captured the spirit of Black History Month. 

As a result of the project being engaged around a schoolwide competition, turn-in rates were higher than normal, and students felt a greater degree of seriousness and pride in their work, as it was potentially going to be displayed to their peers. 

Making PBL Meaningful

Two excellent tools I have found valuable in the design process are the PBL Design Kit, created by the High Tech High Graduate School, and the Gold Standard Essential Project Design Elements, produced by PBLWorks.

Perhaps the most important question our students ask (you know they’re going to ask it) is “Why are we learning this?” Designing with an authentic public product in mind asks educators to have a real answer to this question before we engage our students in the rigors of learning. It intends nothing less than to shift students’ relationship to their learning as they find purpose and meaning in their work.

A sincere thanks to my colleagues Ashley West and Ben Rosen at ARISE High School for their contributions to this article.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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