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While project-based learning has existed for decades, design thinking has recently entered the education lexicon, even though its history can be traced back to Herbert A. Simon's 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial. So why the resurgence of these ideas?

Lately, I have heard teachers and school leaders express a common frustration: "We are _______ years into a _______ initiative, and nothing seems to have changed." Despite redesigning learning spaces, adding technology, or even flipping instruction, they still struggle to innovate or positively change the classroom experience. Imagine innovation as a three-legged stool. Many schools have changed the environment leg, but not the other two legs: the behaviors and beliefs of the teachers, administrators, and students.

Consider this conundrum: much of what we know about teaching comes from 16+ years of observation as students. In no other profession do you spend that much time watching the previous generation before being told to change everything once you take control. Without the framework or scaffolding for that change, it's truly unreasonable to tell educators, "OK, start innovating."

If we look at the science of improvement, systematic change occurs between the contexts of justification (what we know) and discovery (the process of innovation). What if we view PBL and design thinking as possible bridges between those two contexts? What if these frameworks could serve as the justification for discovering new classroom practice?

PBL and 21st-Century Skills

Encouraging students to engage in inquiry, explore real-world contexts, and share their learning lies at the heart of PBL. As an instructional framework, it allows teachers to achieve these goals while still meeting curriculum requirements.

Last spring, Billy Corcoran designed a PBL experience for his fourth-grade class in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. In addition to meeting a multitude of standards, he created an opportunity for his students to make personal connections within their community.

The technology and content requirements for this project had previously existed. The innovation occurred in the shift in behavior and beliefs. He used PBL to:

  • Guide his students' problem solving
  • Support their collaboration and critical thinking
  • Provide voice and choice in how they demonstrated their learning
  • Empower them to realize that their contributions to the community make a tangible difference

A project like Billy’s can seem daunting. However, viewing PBL as a process rather than a product means that teachers can fit it within existing curricular objectives, as exemplified by Jodie Deinhammer. Though her science students ultimately work toward larger projects (this year, they will collaborate on a multi-touch book for the Dallas Zoo as well as contribute to an iTunes U course called Life Science), individual classes still address specific skills such as vocabulary acquisition or research. In Jodie's classrooms, students drive their own learning, make real-world connections, and learn that they have a voice to share well beyond the boundaries of the traditional classroom.

Combining Design Thinking and PBL

Creating true PBL experiences is hard! Moving from projects to PBL can feel overwhelming. Design thinking provides another potential form of teacher scaffolding to help craft these experiences.

Hexagons labelled with Empathize; Define; Ideate; Prototype; and Test fitting next to each other

According to the Stanford d-School process guide, design thinking begins with empathy:

  • What do your students consider important?
  • Which topics spark their curiosity?
  • How might they want to engage with this specific content?
  • How might they choose to demonstrate their learning?

Jodie approaches each new year with objectives and goals, but no plans. During the first five days of school, she seeks out her students' curiosities and passions so that she can leverage their interests to drive curriculum throughout the year.

In the next phase of design thinking, you define a problem. In school terms, this could be a curricular unit, a set of skills, or a broader community challenge. Recently, I used design thinking to prepare a professional development workshop. As I read through participants' online discussion posts, I realized the problem: they had never been students with technology. They didn't know what it felt like to learn in a non-traditional classroom, and so they struggled to create one for their own students. I had now defined the problem that this workshop needed to address.

With the problem articulated, start generating ideas. During the ideate phase, the goal is breadth because the answer may not be readily apparent. Many of these ideas then turn into prototypes, simplified versions of potential solutions. As teachers, consider the power of prototyping learning objectives or lesson plans with colleagues. This gives you the freedom to experiment without concerns about failing with students. When ready, produce the final lesson, unit, activity, or even a complete PBL experience.

Christine Boyer, a fifth-grade teacher at Heathcote School in New York, used design thinking to transform her rocketry unit:

Before design thinking, I really told the kids what they were going to build, and it was a very "cookie cutter" type project. Design thinking changed not only this project, but my approach to teaching.

Christine worked through the design thinking process to better connect with students, define the problems in her curriculum, test potential solutions with colleagues, and then produce new curriculum plans. Ultimately, she shifted her practice from disseminating procedures to fostering a culture of innovation.

Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World, writes that today's students exist in an "innovation economy." They need to become not only problem solvers, but also problem seekers -- those who can look for solutions in contexts where one never previously existed. As educators, we face a daunting task to bridge our requirements for today with our students' requirements for tomorrow. PBL and design thinking may provide two avenues to scaffold our own thinking and instruction as we move toward innovating our classrooms and schools.

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SouthShoreEric's picture
Improving student engagement with Blended Learning & Digital Storytelling

The great value of students learning the process is that they can then apply it to future projects. The end does not justify the means when learning, or true learning is sacrificed. Still, it is important to include iteration in the process and a focus on quality end products because that is important, too. Mythbusters can offer so many great lessons to bring to the classroom.

Nur Roohi's picture

Working within a school district that is classified as a high needs school with the majority percentage of students coming from socioeconomic disadvantaged backgrounds, I have seen the wonders of PBL instruction within the classrooms and the transformation it brings of students throughout making it such a pleasure to watch. I loved how you defined and combined the processes of PBL and design thinking because it reminded me of the engineering practices and mindset, but I would rather use the empathize as the first step rather then identifying a problem (common from engineering practices) because it brings a more human dimension to a real world problem. Especially as you discussed Jodies implementation of establishing norms and building a healthy and respectful learning community the first few days of school, not only are you as the teacher establishing relationships and learning about the students, but you are also setting up the example of the PBL process.
I found your blog to be such a resource and look forward to reading more of your posts!

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Student & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hello Nur.

I actually did a workshop yesterday with a group of teachers in MA. We spent significant time discussing the importance of empathy both from an instructional perspective as well as for helping students to really seek out problems to solve within a PBL context.

Some colleagues and I recorded a webinar last week about this topic as well that you may find of interest. You can find the recording at

Good luck! I hope that you will share what you do with your students.

Priscilla Burns's picture

I think PBL and backward lesson design is an excellent model for all courses to follow. Even better is integrated instruction with this model. I believe some of the best models we have for classroom PBL are within academy models; where the lesson is a blend of several disciplines/subject matters. Learning within context.

BrianPete's picture
Consultant, Author, Professional Development Designer

I strongly believe that the process is much more important than the product. When I ask districts who discuss PBL with me, "Why are you moving toward a PBL model?" If it is because it will prepare kids for the 21st century then I ask them, "How many PBL projects are you planning?" The answer is usually, 1 or 2. If the process of discovery, inquiry, decision-making, authentic research, collaboration and celebration of learning is at the heart of a PBL curriculum how can students become experts with 1 or 2 iterations? We have found that multiple repetitions of the essential elements in a PBL lesson is the most effective way to teach the process . . . Think of it as PBL in a Nutshell. Mini PBL Lessons

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Yup! We teach that everyone experience (we call PBL units Challenges inCritical Skilla) should link to the next. We use a graphic that looks a lot like to icing on top of a Hostess cupcake. The Challenges get messier over time and with experience, building those much- lauded 21st Century skills

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Student & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi Brian.

I agree with you. Rather than thinking of PBL units, I like the idea of PBL as a strategy that encourages inquiry throughout the curriculum.

Thanks for the comment.

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Student & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi Laura.

I would be curious to see your graphic and learn more about how you are using this within a higher ed context.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Beth! You'll be sorry you asked- I LOVE our Critical Skills Classroom. :-)

Here's a link to the site where we talk about the Critical Skills/PBL Concentration in our MEd program. One "loop" of the graphic can be seen at the top of the page.

We use this as the foundation for our Critical Skills, EdTech and Library Media programs and it's a piece of the experience for most of our Education students. Different classes may dig into different pieces of the cycle (community building, design, reflection/feedback, etc) but we work really hard to take a co-learner stance with our students and to model what it is to create connected, standards-aligned problems for them solve. It's not easy, but it sure is fun!

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