George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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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 Candidate & 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

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & 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.
Beth

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.
http://www.antiochne.edu/teacher-education/med-working-teachers/problem-...

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!

Chandler M's picture

Beth,
As a student teacher (who is currently teaching in a PBL classroom), I found this blog post very helpful. I have seen some of the process that goes into creating PBL frameworks, but I have never before heard of Design Thinking. I think the idea of empathizing with students first and foremost to discover their interests is very valuable. I have noticed that my mentor teacher has implemented the same main projects over the past 6 years. I am wondering if there would be ways that she could slightly alter them (if she did not want to completely change them) to cater to the interests of the students in our classes. I am also wondering what it would be like to start a school year without having any pre-made plans. Have you or anyone you know implemented this Design Thinking to the point of entering the school year with no plans at all? I ask this since come January, I will taking over our PBL classroom as the main teacher/facilitator and I am wondering how I could implement this concept of Design Thinking, while still being able to prepare for the projects that students will undergo beforehand. Any feedback you have would be extremely helpful. Thank you!
Chandler

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

Hi Chandler.

There are some excellent educators using design thinking in the classroom. Jodie Deinhammer (you can access her blog from the link above) is an excellent example. I would also suggest that you check out the work that they are doing at both High Tech High and Design 39 schools in San Diego.

For more information about design thinking as a concept, Sabba Quidwai and I have written several posts on EdTech Researcher at Education Week - http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/edtechresearcher/

The Mount Vernon School in Atlanta has done an excellent job documenting how they have used Design Thinking across the curriculum (mvifi.org). You might also want to learn more about DEEPdt from Mary Cantwell - http://deepdesignthinking.com.

Finally, I wrote a post with links to examples before this one on "fitting in PBL" that may be helpful - https://www.edutopia.org/blog/fitting-in-pbl-beth-holland

Best of luck to you and please reach out if you have questions.
Beth

Chandler M's picture

Hi Beth,

Thank you so much for all those resources! I'm excited to learn more about Design Thinking and I'm looking forward to trying to incorporate some of these Design Thinking techniques next semester.

Best,
Chandler

Teachers4STEAM's picture

Beth,

As a classroom teacher, math/science data coordinator, and founder of Teachers4STEAM, I am a believer of PBL and design-focused projects. With experience developing and implementing such projects and seeing the positive impact on student motivation and STEM learning, I wrote an article which was recently published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning. As the IJPBL is an open-access publication, the article can can be found at: http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/ijpbl/vol11/iss1/1/

While the given article focuses on secondary mathematics students, educators of various subjects and levels can gain ideas on developing a process for implementing a motivating project for students which connects classroom concepts to STEM learning.

Sincerely,
Kelly

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

Hi Kelly.

Thank you so much for sharing. It is always a challenge to find scholarly writing about PBL. I hope you don't mind, but I will share this with a few of my classmates who may find this valuable for their research. All of us are in the middle of our intervention lit reviews right now.

Best Regards,
Beth

Teachers4STEAM's picture

Beth,

Please pass on the link to the article to anyone in education. :)

Thanks.

Sincerely,
Kelly

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