[NOTE: This post is pointed at the secondary classroom. It may not apply to elementary classrooms for various reasons.]

I have been involved in an ongoing Twitter DM conversation around design thinking (DT) with my #dtk12chat friends. Unfortunately “design thinking” has become one of those buzz words that education wants to see in their curriculum planning. I say unfortunately because education often suffers from education leaders deciding that there is some new, cool, thing that all teachers should embrace. Because of this you see Design Thinking at every education conference you attend. Ten to twenty years ago this was the case with project based learning (pbl).

But, can design thinking truly be used in a standard public school where, if you are lucky, there are 180 days of classes (90 A/B Block classes) and the state and district requirement of teaching “all of the standards,” is a burden teachers must carry?

I have to say the answer is no. DT can NOT be experienced fully in a “normal” public school. “That is blaspheme !” (from those die hard teachers who tell me that they fully embrace design thinking in their work.) And I push back that no, the average teacher does not have the luxury of embracing the messiness of DT.

Before I go farther with my heinous comments about DT, let me also burst the project based learning bubble. Sorry folks, in a “normal” public school, teachers can not fully execute multiple pbl units and follow their curriculum pacing guides. [Note: There are some situations and content areas where the length of time that a standard is allowed to be taught will work with High Quality PBL.]

How, as a pbl practitioner for the last 12 years and a National Faculty member with PBL Works, can I say such a crazy comment about project based learning? Actually it is easy. I am talking about High Quality PBL (HQPBL). In HQPBL, students spend time in the inquiry phase, and, students are allowed to explore possible ways to solve the problem/issue before creating a solution. Most importantly, students get to interact with professionals in the subject arena to help the depth of their exploration.

I am NOT telling you that teachers can’t use the pbl process in their classes. As a matter of fact, I would argue that great teachers will use as much of the essential elements of HQPBL-every single day-with their students. Inquiry can (and should) be done as often as possible. Reflection should be done on a near-daily basis (at some level). Critique and revision should be a normal part of everything a student produces in the class.

If you take the “Gold Standard” essential elements from PBL Works as the pbl bible, then there are elements I haven’t mentioned. Let’s look at them here:

Challenging Problem or Question & Authenticity

Great teachers introduce authentic problems, questions or issues, on a routine basis, for students to discuss and debate. The problem/question might not be something that lasts longer than a class or two but the students will remember the discussion well after the unit has ended.

Student Voice and Choice & Public Product

Great teachers give students options for moving through the unit of instruction. And, the students are given the opportunity to show what they have learned in multiple ways besides just taking an end of unit exam. In many cases this “showing of their work” is done at public gatherings at the school or in their community.

Great teachers, in their normal flow of teaching, use all aspects of HQPBL. But they do not have very many opportunities to use ALL of HQPBL for a long sustained period around a set of their standards. The curriculum, that has been dictated to them, doesn’t allow time for breaking away from a pacing calendar. And, the ability to deviate from a set calendar is a teacher’s best chance to allow the time for students to deeply explore a topic.

Pacing calendars are helpful for new teachers but act like the Sword of Damocles for teachers who want to stray from a set calendar. There are some districts with leaders who are willing to allow teachers to move away from a pacing calendar. In 2009 my co-teacher and I approached the district math folks with a plan. We promised to teach every standard during the year but we wanted to rearrange the order that topics would be taught so that we could include 6 projects that we had planned for the Algebra 1 school year. The district acquiesced because of our very detailed plans for the year.

I have stated how I know that Gold Standard/HQPBL is HARD. I know that most teachers can’t be doing Gold Standard/HQPBL projects all of the time in their classroom. But I also stated that the elements of pbl can be infused in all aspects of the teaching process. And that gets us back to the discussion we are having on design thinking.

Design Thinking is hard. Most teachers can’t embracing the DT Process all of the time in their classroom. But the elements of DT can and should be infused in all aspects of the teaching process. When we look at the DT Cheat Sheet (above), teachers can and should be searching for rich and relevant stories to use in their classroom. Their students should be exploring different points of view in all of their discussions. Students should be taught to embrace a “Yes and…” mindset in all that they do and they should be encouraged to create multiple prototypes (rough drafts anyone?) of their work. And, like HQPBL, students should be expected to show their work to their peers and to experts as a regular part of the classroom feedback loop.

Great teachers know the importance of the messiness of learning. They know that they show students the endpoint and, then, guide their students along the chosen paths. These teachers are encouraging at all points along these paths. And, while venturing along these paths, students explore and understand the human element. Throughout, they are receiving feedback and are reflecting on the feedback as they refine their thinking.

DT and PBL will never die. Great teachers live and breathe the elements of these processes and they know that students will benefit from living in a classroom where DT and/or PBL processes are the norm. If we believe that this is what makes for great teaching, then we should expose every teacher to pbl and dt in their teacher education programs. And, at conferences, we need to stop listening to “experts” who tell us there is only one version of either of these processes.

Finally, there are two things that hinder great teaching more than any other factor in education – testing and pacing guides. New teachers can benefit from having structure in the flow of a curriculum and of ways to assess student achievement in that curriculum. Once a teacher has demonstrated that they understand what needs to be taught and to what level of achievement, then they should be afforded the opportunity to create their own calendars and ways of assessing. It is time to loosen (or remove) the yokes. Teachers should start HQPBL projects permeated with design thinking. I would love to teach with that freedom and I would have loved to be a student in an environment like that.

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