Last night I missed a great conversation during a Twitter chat hosted by #MeritKCI and involving my friends who frequent the #dtk12chat. As I was scrolling through the tweets from the chat I noticed some discussion of PBL and how different Design Thinking (DT) is from PBL. A blog post that was referenced (and also one of my favorites) was written back in 2012 by Ewan Mcintosh of

What’s missing in these 140 character exchanges is some historical perspective and some grounding in where classroom teachers are in 2016. Before going further though, it’s important to understand where my belief system lies and where I come from. I love student exploration – fueling inquiry and that innate desire to learn about things. I am against grades and, instead, am for student assessment through creativity, self analysis, and reflection. I believe in backward design but also in problem creation. I am also grounded in where the education world is today.

Parents, and I’m one, want their kids to be able to “be a kid,” to explore, and (at the same time) get into great schools that will introduce them to unique learning opportunities. These school should then provide a foot into the door of a company that will help the students pay off their college debt. Many (most?) of these “great” colleges require a certain score on a standardized test (SAT/ACT) and a certain class rank based upon a 4.0 grade point average.

High schools are charged with getting students college and, lately, “career ready.” Students must learn certain things mandated by their community, their state, and by the national government. The national government creates a list of “standards” that must be met. The state government creates a list of standards that must be met. And then school districts create standards that their students must meet to be labeled a high school graduate. More and more of these standards include the words “Explore” and “Hands On” but it really is up to the the teachers to bring in the “how” to do that exploration.

At some point years ago teachers started finding ways to engage students in their learning through an idea of centering the learning around a specific task or problem.  Although the idea of teaching in a mode that was focused upon a project had been around for about a century, it was a couple of dozen years ago that this was labeled (as we know it today) as Project Based Learning or Problem Based Learning – PBL. Schools/Companies/Corporations in Northern California jumped into this and we suddenly had the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) and the New Tech Network (NTN).  As these entities trained teachers and/or opened PBL schools the popularity of this PBL-thing increased and more groups started training teachers in their version of PBL.

Around the same time this was happening schools were rapidly removing “Shop” classes and other hands-on classes for students because schools wanted to focus on courses that were academically rich. But this wasn’t happening everywhere. In Upstate New York a company was created that focused on engineering principles – Project Lead the Way (PLTW).  In 2010, as I finished my 2nd year as a math teacher in a New Tech Network school, I was given the opportunity to teach a PLTW class, Introduction to Engineering Design (IED), and I went to my first PLTW course. That same year I saw for the first time a Nightline piece about a company called IDEO.

I started thinking about the marriage of the design process and the pbl process. And, coincidently, I found out about and read a new book called Make Just One Change from the Right Question Institute.  If we could get students to ask more questions at the start of each project might we improve the student inquiry process? And, in turn, might we not help teachers see that we can allow students the opportunity to explore the content and not just follow a road map that we (the teacher) created?


In 2012 as I was about to “finally” figure out this PBL-thing that I was floundering in, I was promoted to an Instructional Coach position with the charge of helping a middle school bring in PBL as the primary mode of instruction. So, before I was able to perfect my own teaching practices I was asked to help a staff of nearly 50 learn and perfect the art of being PBL teachers. That’s when I started to really see the push back from teachers who felt that they were in a no-win scenario: state test scores must improve and they must be doing PBL in their classrooms. We were a NTN middle school with a NTN coach but we weren’t doing PBL the “right” way. After two years we all decided that the school and NTN needed a break from each other. And I felt like a completely incompetent instructional coach. Why didn’t PBL succeed in this school?

Later that year I started the training to become a National Faculty member of BIE so that I could reflect on my own PBL knowledge while facilitating training for teachers in school districts who were looking for a way to bring this PBL-thing into their schools. While immersing myself in all things PBL I came across a group of teachers who were talking about using a design thinking approach (DT) in their classrooms. In discussions with some of the folks I considered to be PBL guru’s I was told that these DT teachers weren’t going deep enough with the content and that PBL was what really got students going deeper. “Wait,” I thought, “wasn’t the big push back to PBL the notion that in projects students didn’t go deep enough – it was just bells and whistles?”

DT was undergoing the same scrutiny that PBL had when I first was exposed to it years earlier. And, I should add, I was still hearing that push back from teachers in PBL trainings – “How do we know that the students will understand the content to do well on standardized tests?” -and- “This will never fly with our parents/school board/students.”  In 2015/2016 BIE and the National Faculty members took a hard look at what PBL should look like for all students and in all classrooms. Because every classroom is different we wanted to create a “standard” that all teachers should be striving for in their schools. We came up with what we now are calling Gold Standard PBL.

In introducing this new Gold Standard to teachers one aspect jumped out to me: we now want teachers getting their students to ask questions through the use of the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) from the Right Question Institute. I had first learned about the QFT when I read Make Just One Change. BIE was now specifically stating what I had thought about way back in 2012.

Now let’s overlay the flow of design thinking. Here are two representations (with notations) of this:

Empathy is the obvious thing not mentioned in the Gold Standard. So, in my mind, a good PBL teacher must get their students looking at why we are doing this project. Who are we doing it for and why should the student care about doing it? Along with empathy at the start is building what I call empathic inquiry throughout the project. Are students getting feedback from those whom they are creating for throughout the project? 
And so, again from my perspective, doing gold standard PBL while following a DT path is the best of both worlds. These are not (and should not be considered) separate entities. What are we looking for in all of this? We want students who are aware of their surroundings; are aware of the needs of others; are inquisitive about how and why things are the way they are; and, who are given the chance to experience the creative process of imagining a result, attempting to create the result, reacting to feedback for improvement on this initial result, and persevering to complete their final result. 
I am now back in the classroom in an International Baccalaureate (IB) charter school in Texas. I am creating projects in coordination with my fellow teachers. I organize my project ideas using Project Based Teaching Practices from BIE and I use the DT flow shown above. I have found that it doesn’t matter whether you think DT is better/different than PBL or that PBL is better/different than DT. What matters is that you are creating a classroom where students feel safe to take chances, make mistakes, and build resiliency. 

Leave a Reply

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