As someone who has been teaching “at the tip of the spear” for the last four years, in a PBL school that is considered innovative by conservative education standards, I know that telling people that I feel that I am still teaching in the past will make people shake their heads.

In 1992, I graduated with my MSEd from Old Dominion University’s education curriculum department and during my time there we were teaching middle school teachers the value of putting students in cooperative groups and using manipulatives or hands on activities to help those students with different learning styles.

Yet, it wasn’t until I came to a New Technology Network (NTN) school in 2008 that I finally had a school where you were expected to have students working in groups.  But those guys also had us teaching with this thing called Project Based Instruction.  And, even in the NTN our school was fairly unique because every teacher was expected to be teaching with PBL – even in PE/Health.

Fast forward to Educon 2012 and I am hanging around with some teachers who are teaching in School’s of Choice.  Thinking about shifting our school to a school of choice hurt my head.  And after a few weeks I just decided that it was something that would have to be taken on by a much younger person with a higher brain capacity.

In between those two events (2008 and 2012) I had heard more and more about Design Thinking and Understanding by Design and Apple’s Challenge Based Learning (which we had sent teachers to in Cupertino).  I saw differences between each of them but not enough to make me think that one might be better or worse for our students so I didn’t spend much energy on this topic.

Then came this thought provoking post by Ewan McIntosh which brought me back to his TED Talk that I had seen quite a while ago.  And I started thinking.  And I responded on Ewan’s post and he mentioned that the conversation was also going on at Justin Schwamm’s Google+ page.  And I submitted some frustrations about trying to do this with our students, in our school district, with our state standardized tests.  Ewan responded with “Try any of the schools in Brisbane with whom we work who will match your criteria.  Or any of the 20 schools, elementary to high school, who more than meet it in Sydney.  Or Rosendale Primary School in London who might well “beat” your mix of teacher experience, testing requirements and student background.  Poverty in cash terms doesn’t mean a poverty of ambition.”  

Wow, I had been told what I have said to people for many years – the economic background of a student shouldn’t limit their capacity to learn!  So, are we limiting our students’ capacity to learn by only providing an education with PBL instead of Design Thinking?  The answer, I think, is yes.  What to do about it on the other hand is a whole different stone to turn.

Having seen the push back and fear in some of our veteran teachers’ eyes when being told that we are shifting to PBL made me acutely aware of what the reaction would be if we attempted to shift to design thinking.  And, in my opinion, something as drastically different as that needs to have 100% teacher buy in.

So how do I proceed?  Well, to start, I have nearly 300 6th graders coming into our school in 4 days.  I have eight 6th grade teachers who I am asking to use PBL this year.  The teaching experience ranges from 0 to 15 years and six of them have been through PBL training.  I owe it to my teachers and our students to make sure this school year goes well.  Next year we will be adding the 7th grade teachers and I need successes so that the next group of teachers are able to feel as though they will be successful.

Design thinking is the future of collaborative grouping.  When I started on this education journey I fully believed that working collaboratively was the way our students needed to work in their schools. That hasn’t changed.  And, as we move ahead with the educating of our children we need to make sure they are also thinking critically.  Are they using their imagination?  Are they asking themselves “What if…?”

As educators we need to loosen the reigns a little more and give our students more ownership of their learning.  They can and will succeed.  We just need to provide a safe learning environment and the spark that gets them motivated to explore all possibilities.

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