Project-based learning always sounds great in theory. But as many of us know, it doesn’t actually stick when it comes time to change instruction.
One reason is that we often don’t bridge the gap between theory and actual practice.
The first time I learned about PBL, I was sold. Period. And then I had no idea what to do next. I envisioned a world where students are motivated problem-solvers, enthusiastically tackling complex questions and coming up with dazzling solutions. But I lacked the knowledge and understanding to facilitate the elements of PBL that make this type of learning a reality: feedback, collaboration, brainstorming, reflection, research–even crafting the right driving question.
But then a few years later I was fortunate enough to receive training in design thinking and everything just clicked. For years I’d treated activities like feedback and brainstorming as if they were magical activities that just occur–that students would simply find the right words to provide balanced critique, or that students would conjure great ideas out of the ether. Design thinking offered me the tools and processes to put PBL into action.
So what is design thinking?
IDEO, one of the world leaders in design, refers to design thinking as a “mindset” as well as a “human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit.” This mindset encompasses the tenets of effective design: empathy, clear problem-definition, dynamic ideation, prototyping, and testing of solutions. If we want to make informed, effective decisions or develop solutions that will have real impact, these phases of design are essential.
The designer’s toolkit that IDEO refers to is actually an ever-growing collection of hundreds of structured, step-by-step methods developed by designers around the world over the last century. But these aren’t just methods for architects or marketers or graphic artists; these are methods that we as educators can and should embrace as a powerful means for bringing problem-solving and collaboration to life in our learning spaces. If you have ever struggled to help your students move from Point A to B to C in a *PBL project, design thinking will be indispensable to you. [*See also: staff meetings, strategic planning, school improvement teams, and pretty much every other collaborative endeavor you might encounter in a school district.]
If you’re intrigued, but not quite sure what design thinking might look like in practice, no worries! Writing about design thinking is one thing, but I’m pretty sure it’s easier to show rather than tell. So over the next few weeks, I’ll share explainer videos and discuss some of our team’s favorite design methods for PBL, including specific methods for feedback, brainstorming, and research.
See you all next week for a deep dive into brainstorming!