August 22, 2012

What's the difference between PBL and Design Thinking?

Bianca Hewes and some others were last night asking some good questions to seek out the difference between design thinking and project-based learning (PBL) as techniques for use in the classroom. These kinds of questions we explore through out workshops with educators around the world, and there's an explanation developing in a book I hope to release soon. In the meantime, here's a quick and dirty take on the question from me:

For much of the past three years my colleagues and I been working through a specific innovation process with educators on the one hand, and non-education organisations on the other: media groups, technology startups, fashion companies, the UN, political parties... The process is design thinking.

When we work with creative, government or political organisations, the approach is a logical extension of what they're doing, a welcome structure through which to explore a wider scope of a given challenge.

When we work with schools, we're taking the Design Thinking process and marrying it with what we know from research about what makes great learning. However, there's a piece of vocabulary that often gets in the teachers' way of seeing what design thinking might bring to the learning process: PBL, or project-based learning. "It's just PBL"; "This is the same as CBL": the understanding of a model which is close, but not quite the same to design thinking, makes it harder to spot the differences and additional elements that could help enrichen practice.

So what are the key differences between a PBL project and one where design thinking is mashed with what we know makes learning great? (N.B. Following some criticism on Twitter, I feel it is worth pointing out that these reflections are just that, reflections on practice I've either observed first hand or have researched online. Don't get mad: comment and take part in the discussion).

0. Important point: there's probably less of a #PBL vs Design Thinking distinction to make, but rather, how can design thinking add to existing well-kent pedagogies of PBL?

1. A PBL project tends to explore a relatively narrow subject area, with a narrow essential question
In many, if not most PBL, projects I've seen, the project is defined by the essential question(s), which often sound like curricular checkpoints, or which funnel learning down a particular pre-defined path. In many, the groupings of students and their activities are defined (the film crew, the researchers, the presentation-makers, the event organisers).

In Design Thinking, the goal is to explore the widest possible area(s) for longer, to offer a good half-dozen or more potential lines of enquiry that students might end up exploring. The essential question(s) come much later in the process (as much as half-way through, in the synthesis stage) and...

2. In Design Thinking, the students, not the teacher, write the essential question(s)
In PBL, the teacher does a lot of the learning for the student: taking a large potential area of study and narrowing it down into a manageable project question. The teacher often delivers a "brief" for learners through two or three essential questions, much in the same way as a client delivers a brief to a design firm.

In Design Thinking, the teacher avoids asking a question at all, and comes up with what we call a generative topic (from David Perkins' work), a curiosity-mongering statement that opens up an area of study, doesn't narrow it down. The questions that come from this investigation are the ones that students will go on to look at in more detail, come with ideas around solving or presenting.

Design firms like IDEO and our own web designers at NoTosh often take a brief from a client and then through their research, they change it. However, in learning, the use of a generative topic from the start speeds up the process, and teaches this skill of "helpful disobedience" of the brief. There's little difference, in fact, between a traditional project-based learning experience and a deep design thinking experience if the educator is giving a brief: design thinking merely adds some structure to PBL, a new vocabulary, and, it seems from every workshop I spot online, lots of LEGOs, pipe cleaners and post-its. There is more to Design Thinking for learning than this utilitarian service-improvement model that's currently getting big airtime!

A large part of our work with educators is working on how to develop higher order questioning skills in students. So many Design Thinking projects we observe elsewhere at the moment are based around relatively lower order questions, or on just school/community improvement. Design Thinking can be so much more than this, but it takes the marriage between Design Thinking as a creative industries process and the best educational research we can find. It's hard to find people teaching Shakespeare, religious studies or mathematics through the process, the very things we're seeing educators through our work begin to achieve. Core to raising that ambition is raising the quality of questioning in both teachers and students, something that remains untouched in most schools.

3. The ideas of what students will produce in PBL are often set by the teacher.
In Design Thinking students make the choice about what their prototype will be. Prototype or product ideas for learning are often set in advance in a PBL project ("you will produce a film", or "you will be able to use multimedia and text").

In Design Thinking the decision about which medium to use to show an idea lies entirely with the students, and again comes later in the process, when they know more about the initial exploratory topic.

4. Design Thinking provides a set of vocabulary that increasingly makes sense to employers in the creative, financial and governmental and innovation sectors.
The biggest challenge with PBL is that it was invented for education by educators. Design Thinking was created 30 years ago by a product design outfit (IDEO) as a way of working and thinking, to help provide better solutions to clients. The process helped bring about the graphical interface and computer mouse. It's now coming into the language of many large firms as they seek a more structured way to innovate.

The language PBL uses is, by contrast, inconsistent and not usable outside the classroom. So, using a process that encourage deeper, wider thinking AND helps develop a life skill provides great value to learners.

5. And what about Understanding by Design..?
When we first came across Understanding by Design, or UbD, it felt, in the words of those harnessing it, very similar to their first impressions of design thinking. However, there's a key difference. UbD involves the educator deciding on a final view of success and working back from that, designing learning towards the final goal. Design Thinking does it the other way around.

UbD almost tries to give students the impression they have choice, responsibility for their learning, real things to create in order to learn, but in fact, it fails to respect the choices learners make, as tangents are a) less likely to appear (the immersion phease of research at the beginning is narrower by design) and b) less likely to be given time and resource by the teacher when they do appear (such tangents are off the goal that the teacher has already set in mind).

Although controversial to say, I feel that UbD and many project-based learning approaches do nothing but disempower the learner, or at least not empower them any more than traditional coursework and chalk-and-talk. It's maybe less the approach that is wrong (since depth and higher order thinking is a staple of most guides to project-based learning) but the practice that ends up occurring as people find themselves pushed back into the status quo of assessment accountability and content coverage fear from their superiors. As a result, many design thinking projects we see are too narrowly designed around school or community improvement, something Reggio Emilia and Montessori schools have been doing (better?) for scores of years. Why are we not seeing PBL or Design Thinking taking place across whole school curricula, from Shakespeare to science, school canteens to Cantonese?

It's time people look more seriously towards the amazing work done by educators in Europe and Australia, where design thinking is truly stretching the scope within which learners operate. There. I said it! :-) And I promise that over the next six months we'll share even more of those amazing learning stories.

This is a brief outline of five key differences between the two approaches. As I wrote above, there is a new book coming out soon from me outlining the amazing work done by our Design Thinking Schools and creative clients around the world. This will provide the depth that some folk might want after this briefest of explanations. We also run intensive workshops for educators and creative firms, wherever you are in the world, that help enthuse staff and set them out on the journey towards more student-led learning. If you're interested in one of those, just get in touch.


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In terms of "A PBL project tends to explore a relatively narrow subject area, with a narrow essential question" I would have to argue that good PBL does no such thing. While it does offer a learning experience that celebrates depth, not breadth- a project that has enduring understanding will allow the content learned to transcend time, classes, or historical examples. A well designed essential question is though-provoking and open-ended; hardly narrow.

Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. I agree that a well-designed essential question is open-ended and thought-provoking: I just see so few examples of that in examples that are praised the loudest.

I think the key point about having students design the essential questions, though, is one of motivation. There are also essential questions which are, in theory, great, but which in practice leave some kids saying "so what?, who cares?" This is why starting even broader than perhaps we would with an open-ended question and letting students learn to get that perfect balance between specificity and flexibility of essential question is a great lifelong skill.

Thanks again for your comments. I'd be interested to know what you think of this last point I make about students taking more control of the questions they answer.

I'm not sure I agree with your 5th point - Understanding by Design is different than both PBL and Design Thinking because it's primarily written for educational designers, not students. As the book notes, the primary purpose is "to guide educators across the K-16 spectrum in the design of curriculum, assessment, and instruction." So with UbD a student may receive a 'standard' curriculum without knowing that the teacher used the UbD approach to design and test the class.

The other two put more creative decision-making into the hands of students, though you rightly note that PBL offers less pure creativity in the sense that the shape and content are often set ahead of time.

Thanks for your comment, Pete. I appreciate that UbD is a teacher planning process, but it is often cited to me as "like design thinking", or like planning for a design thinking unit. As I say above, it's not - it's the opposite.

Much learning, PBL or not, is predicated on knowing the outcome of learning - interpreted as knowing the final product of learning. UbD works back from that. Design Thinking is actually starting with no idea what the final product might be, although with good planning one can ensure that expected learning goals are met.

Thanks for your thought-provoking post. I wrestled with same thorny question (diff. b/w PBL and Design Thinking?) when I was doing research for Bringing Innovation to School. My conclusion: These two approaches are more alike than different and, when done well, can set the stage for students to push their thinking far as they come up with solutions (learning important content along the way). I’d hate to pit one against the other when either is going to offer huge improvement over traditional, textbook-and-test based instruction.
Of course, you can find examples of projects that aren’t done well. Those tend to be overly prescriptive, with students following a series of recipe-like steps that the teacher has decided on in advance (and which lead to predictable results). Same is true, I’d argue, with Design Thinking if design briefs leave little room for students to chart their course.
For either approach to work well, teachers need to make sure there’s genuine inquiry going on. That’s why PBL teachers invest so much time on driving questions. I disagree with your argument that PBL questions are too narrow and constraining. Good questions are open-ended. Great ones arise from students’ own questions and concerns about their world. This can happen in both PBL and DT, if teachers are open to students’ ideas (for example, by asking students to provide a focus group or critical feedback on projects at the design stage).
As you say: “There's little difference, in fact, between a traditional project-based learning experience and a deep design thinking experience if the educator is giving a brief: design thinking merely adds some structure to PBL, a new vocabulary…”
Exactly right.
So, what’s the new vocabulary that DT introduces (and which belongs in the PBL lexicon, as well)? A few terms I quite like:
• “Yes, and?” as a question to ask students, again and again, to push their thinking
• “How might we…” as a sentence stem for framing an engaging, open-ended PBL driving question (or design challenge).
• Problem-finding as an essential skill that students need to own
• Empathy--asking students to understand the user experience and consider multiple perspectives
I look forward to your forthcoming book and to hearing more about the great DT work coming from Europe and Australia.

Thanks for your comments Suzie. The blog post title came directly from last night's conversation and the artificial dichotomies that tend to get created. As you've pointed out, whether pbl or dt or any form of student-led teaching it comes down to understanding what a higher order question looks like (beyond the very useful starter "how might we") and putting as much of the process into the hands of the learner.

Unfortunately, most of what I see from PBL classrooms does not resemble the higher order thinking of those described in your book. Even fewer apply a uniform ethos of student-led learning across curriculum, seeing some things "as just having to be learned and taught."

Onwards! There's a long way to go.

I believe that in many cases, PBL and UbD are exactly as you describe, but I also believe you are unfairly tarring all with the same brush. I have seen many PBL projects that focus primarily on the process that have the students asking their own questions, finding their own problems, or coming up with their own challenges. Many also have the students deciding on their final "product." As described by Apple, their Challenge Based Learning definitely aspires to those objectives.

As for UbD, I think you have lumped it in with PBL when it should be a separate discussion. PBL is more of an approach used with kids whereas UbD is an approach used with teachers. As before, in many cases, the results of UbD are as you described. But, the process is a sound one, especially for those times content is as much if not more important than process. (Yes, less of those would be great as would equally emphasizing process with them, but I am in favor of some common content being taught. As Wiggins and mCtighe state "Although teaching for understanding is a vital aim in schooling, it is just one of the many. There are cases when 'understanding' is neither feasible nor desirable. The developmental level of students will determine the extent to which conceptualization is appropriate; at other times, it will make in-depth understanding a lesser or tangential goal."

I think the biggest problem is still teachers focusing almost solely on the content they have always taught and not enough on process/skills, let alone thinking outside of the box/school. So, anything worthwhile like Design Thinking or PBL gets co-opted and ends up looking different from what was initially proposed. That's one reason I love our Engage Engage program and Thinkering Studio. We don't have those same content objectives and history to limit us!

Well, you got a lively debate going there! Whilst I disagree with some of your criticisms of PBL (because I think there are many different entry/planning points to PBL, not simply the ones you describe) I appreciate you were doing a quick definition. The range of responses reminds me of that People's Front of Judea and the Judean People's Front scene in Month Python.

Design Thinking originated at Stanford and when Stanford worked with High Tech High (one of the world's leading exponents of PBL) it was a signal that such differences are so slight as to be insignificant. There are many ways you can adapt both approaches - and good teachers will use whatever is need to engage kids and their creativity, and get the job done. Compare both approaches with the NCLB-induced transmissive pedagogies in the US, and the 'sit-em-down-and-make-em-have-it ' teaching in the UK and Australia that we're all familiar with, and we're all splitting pedagogical hairs! And if you need reminding about the gulf in opinions, please visit my most recent post on the subject
- I'd happily settle for either Design Thinking or PBL compared to some of the attitudes clearly still driving some teachers!!

Because there is no correct answer to a well-crafted essential question, I see the students' ability to evolve in their response as being truly student-centered. In my mind, this is where the students have the "control" that you discuss. Again, a well-crafted essential question, that gets at enduring understanding, is authentic in nature and therefore clearly relevant to a students' learning and life.

These are hairs we're splitting, but they're important ones. The design thinking methodology Stanford promote comes from a process harnessed by Kelley while founding IDEO, a process that predates even his formalisation of it in the creative industries.

The challenge I put here is more to do with the inherent pedagogical steps design thinking absolutely requires in order to make it through the process, vs the apparent nice-to-haves of PBL. For me, DT has more robustness in that student-led angle as a result. It is a hair I'm splitting, but such is my wont :-) we're finding that the hair splitting is having disproportionately positive effects on teachers' previous efforts at PBL.

@Jennifer - on that we are agreed, although I'm still to come across a consistently successful approach to teachers creating compelling essential questions. Even in institutions lauded globally for their PBL I find more lower order than anything else. Tomorrow I might start a wee blog post on some of our exploratory areas. Would you want to suggest some of those open ended essential questions you're talking about for inclusion in that?

sure-feel free to tweet me more info @JennyPieratt

I love the discussions on this topic and they resonate with me as a PBL Instructional Coach for a Middle School that is just starting with PBL at the 6th grade level. I have taught High School Engineering with "PBL" where we go through the 12 Step Design process and the questioning we used was in line with the comments by Suzie Boss earlier. I find that although there are differences in each of these processes, the experience of the teacher is crucial to how student-led the discussions will become. I know I was guilty of following a more cook book like approach to my PBL Units in the beginning. These students were not going in any other direction than what I had envisioned for them to go. Once I was able to let go and let the students take more ownership of their learning I was able to step back and become more of a facilitator and suddenly groups were off exploring ideas and creating plans. Part of me, as an educated person, wants to make sure that people understand the differences between each of these. However, what is important for non-educators to understand is that each of these processes allows students to own their learning. And that is such an important concept for students, who we want to be successful in life, to learn.

You might all be interested in a debate on Google+ around defining (or not defining) product of learning based on the TEACHER's knowledge and potential support:

Take a look at the work of Sylvia Chard and Lillian Katz around PBL. it's completely centered on how to build projects on the experiences, questions and interests of children. You may see lots of things labeled "PBL" that are narrowly focused on teacher goals and teacher generated essential questions, but that's not what it's supposed to be.

I continue to see narrow or lower-order questions put to students even in places which ARE supposedly the places to see great PBL. Thanks so much for the references to Sylvia and Lillian. Getting closer to something that makes sense to me.

Tanks for this information.
I think the biggest problem is teachers focusing almost solely on the content they have always taught and not on process.

One of the commonalities, I would think, between PBL & DT would be classroom and school norms regarding knowledge creation and inquiry, as well as the administrative vision and actions that support and sustain it within the larger context of school institutions.

And a word about PBL(s). Although at BIE we define PBL rather verbosely as "a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning essential knowledge and 21st century skills through an extended, student-influenced inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks," the reality is that there are about as many instantiations of PBL as there are classrooms. I think it is tricky to "define" PBL, and our writing and thinking encourages inclusivity rather than purity. That said, I think there are common assumptions and essential practices that cut across different PBL models, practices that we have identified as essential elements . My hunch is many of these essential elements would also characterize DT.

Ewan, thanks for addressing the difference between these frameworks. I often find that we(teachers)try to force new modes of thought into existing ones. The result always seems to be that the original idea becomes overly generalized. The most significant distinction between PBL and UBD versus Design Thinking is how significantly they value the learning process. Being trained in both UBD and PBL led me to become hyper-focused on a predetermined product. We offered students many choices, but they all had to meet up in the end. The power of Design Thinking and Inquiry Circles
is that they respect, value, and teach process. Both students and teachers feel free to slow down, gather feedback, and evolve. I like to think that PBL and UBD are great stepping-stones to true authentic learning.

@John - No doubt that there are commonalities between project-based learning's core values and Design Thinking, but it's worth remembering where each one comes from. Is it education that invented working in projects, or the creative world? I honestly don't know the answer, and I'm off to find out, but I know that "PBL" as a currency of learning is positively toddler-like compared to the mid-life crisis "design thinking" is probably about to face ;-)

I'm not comfortable with the tone that you have taken in this blog post, nor the decision to pit teaching methods against each other. Yes, I said teaching methods - and you know why, Ewan? Because WE are teachers working in the classroom every day trying our hardest to ensure learning happens.
Personally, I think that there may be 'bad' examples of any teaching strategy ... you're bound to find examples of complete failures using Design Thinking if you're willing to share them. What I like about teachers is that they share their failures and learn from them.
To me this post reads too much like a sales pitch for DT, which is sad because I was really excited to incorporate elements of DT in my class after reading Suzie Boss's book. I guess what she got me interested in was fostering innovation, not buying a 'brand' of teaching strategy.
My way of doing projects may not be as 'uber' as your way of doing DT, but I know as a young teacher that my current approach is vastly superior to the worksheet, chalk&talk that I used to do for years.
I agree with David Price, education has no time for binary oppositions. I will not define myself in opposition to anyone or anything.
But thanks for your thoughts.

HI Ewan - have finally completed my response - via post on my nascent blog: Has been germinating over several days and nights because it did get me thinking...

@Bianca - Thanks for adding your thoughts here. I don't think I am pitting them against each other, beyond a blog post which is born out of the discussions and questions I'm always getting asked: "What's the difference between PBL and Design Thinking"? In the blog post itself, and in the comments it's pretty clear that not I, nor anyone else, is pitching them against each other.

As for failures, design thinking is full of them - design thinking is all about them! And the teachers we work with share them with us every week:

Likewise, every one of my team spends days in school EVERY week of the year, including during one hemisphere's school holidays where we work in the other, to hone practice, see what works, blog what didn't and why, and find a better solution.

Come along to one of our workshops or talks and you'll see those failures alongside the successes. So far, you've not seen one of our takes on things. And, far from being a publicity stunt, this is very much my life at the moment. If I was working in my own school, I'd be talking about it all the time. Well, my school happens to be this gig!

I believe that's "Reggio Emilia".

Thanks Bill for the correction.

There is a lot said about the types of thinking. I would like more to be said about how things are taught in school. I can't understand why school systems today give spelling words, but the student doesn't have to learn the definition of the words. Seems like they are only going half way. When I was in school we learned to spell the words in syllables and learned the definition of the words also. I have a granddaughter in 5th grade public school and they aren't learning the definition of the word, just how to spell it. I don't think they have any idea what a syllable is either. Can anyone explain why this new system is considered good? When I hear these things I understand why the U.S. education is going down.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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