55: PBL Trade-Offs





Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 10.27.04 PM


Big ideas/transfer VERSUS specific knowledge and skills:
  • Err on the side of big ideas -> knowledge may be too abstract to be useful
  • Err on the side of specific -> may learn skills but not why / when to use them
  • Aim for a balance between discrete information and meaningful conceptual frameworks
Complex realistic messy performances VERSUS efficient and sound tests:
  • Err on side of messiness -> may lead to confusion, take too much time
  • Err on side of efficiency -> tests lack validity, learning may end up being inert and useless in real contexts
  • Mitigate some of the messiness of performances with models and rubrics
  • Use tests for evaluating discrete enabling skills
Teacher control VERSUS learner control of the work
  • Err on side of teacher control -> students lack voice and choice in their work, may lose engagement
  • Err on side of student control -> students lack knowledge to design frameworks that tie to key learning goals
  • Let teacher control substantive holistic curriculum choices
  • Involve students in choices about product formats and day-to-day (during day) flow
Direct teach VERSUS constructivist approaches
  • Err on side of constructivism -> may take too long, may skip details in discrete skills
  • Err on side of direct teach -> students don’t make meaningful connections among concepts and skills, can not grasp big ideas
  • Use more direct approaches for discrete straightforward knowledge
  • Use more constructivist approaches for deep subtle concepts
Depth VERSUS breadth of knowledge
  • Err on side of depth -> may not get to enough ideas in course
  • Err on side of breadth -> knowledge learned at level that is too superficial for transfer
  • Develop a yearlong plan that prioritizes important ideas
Uniform VERSUS personalized work and expectations
  • Err on side of uniformity -> lack of differentiation may mean that not all students get opportunities to learn material
  • Err on side of personalization -> unsustainable, not all student learn goals
  • Use rubric for final product and allow choices that do not change the rubric at all (or very much)
  • Cluster student needs and plan remediations and enrichment activities around these
  • Use varied methods to teach the same content
Effective VERSUS merely engaging
  • Err on side of effective -> student learn skills without sense of ownership
  • Err on side of engagement -> students may have fun without learning anything
  • Design activities that are both effective and engaging
  • Make sure all hands on activities are aligned to learning goals
  • Make sure drier lessons are explicitly connected to more engaging work
Complex VERSUS simplistic
  • Err on side of complexity -> leads to confusion and lack of transfer
  • Err on side of simplicity -> big ideas lose meaning, accuracy & transfer
  • Aim to craft essential (Driving) questions that are both age appropriate and meaningful
Well crafted plan VERSUS flexibility & openness
  • Err on side of rigid planning -> may miss out on good learning opportunities, may not make necessary adjustments to students’ needs
  • Err on side of openness -> plan may lack clarity & focus, learning may feel inefficient, disconnected and untied to a larger purpose
  • Develop a well crafted plan and use formative feedback to refine it
Great individual unit VERSUS larger goals 
  • Err on side of single unit -> may neglect other important school goals
  • Err on side of larger goals -> may develop a unit that is too diluted to be effective
  • Design units that are aligned to school and curriculum goals
  • Use textbooks and tools in the service of well designed learning plans


Project design is hard.  There are many balances to strike while designing and implementing effective and engaging projects.  Any PBL educator that’s designed and implemented several projects has probably faced at least 1 or more of the trade-offs above.  Diagnosing which trade-offs keep plaguing one’s design can give hints as to what types of design solutions teachers need to research in order to create more balance in their projects.


Preparation Steps
  • If a project went well, try to notice how one managed the trade-offs above in order to extract general tips.  Apply these tips to continue to design successful projects.
  • If a project went poorly, try to identify which of the trade-offs above broke down.  Research and brainstorm how to better manage that trade-off and apply those tips to future project designs.
Early Implementation Steps
  • Be aware of how trade-offs (above) are impacting project implementation and note how you manage these.
  • Survey students using some the trade-offs above to check if the right balance is being struck.
Advanced Implementation Steps
  • Use diagnoses of one’s past successes and failures, to identify which tradeoffs one manages poorly.  Develop checklists associated with those trade-offs that help guide one to a better balance in future projects.
  • Ask students for advice in your troublesome trade-offs on how you might strike a better balance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *