What’s the difference between PBL and Design Thinking?

If schools dropped the insistence on “doing” PBL or “doing” Design Thinking, might we understand some more of the subtleties and nuances between what’s on offer? If we cared enough about these differences, and not just what we recognise as being like whatever we’re already doing, we could all gain from some better practice in the classroom.

Every day, I bump up against people who say this:

“Oh yeah, we do Project Based Learning with design thinking all the time. They’re the same thing, more or less... aren’t they?”

They’re not. Most of the time. Project Based Learning (PBL) and Design Thinking have become so many things to so many people that it may well be pointless now trying to define The Right Way to do either.

I want to build on a post I wrote six years ago, now with plenty more experience of how design thinking, on the one hand, is different from many ‘standard’ ways of going about inventing new products in business, and on the other how design thinking provides a totally different starting point for thinking about how we plan, teach and assess kids, compared to common-or-garden PBL.

Whereas a decade ago I thought that design thinking was a logical extension of what creative, government or political organisations did in their everyday, I’ve come to realise that the biggest two elements of design thinking are, in fact, normally missing:

  1. Creative businesses, governmental or political organisations tend to focus on incremental innovation, whereas the groundbreaking (and award-winning) work we’ve done with them has focussed on finding problems and reshaping them before even getting a whiff of problem-solving.
  2. The business world is largely just as slow as we perceive things to be in eduland, when it comes to creating significant change in their processes. It’s not a case of ‘what can education learn from businesses who work in innovative ways’. Instead, we spend much time sharing the learning across each side of the equation — education and business.
Design Thinking helps educators rethink their role as deliverer of all knowledge, or even guide on the side. Instead, they have a vital role as chief provocateur and teacher of those core skills of research: questioning, listening, synthesis, feedback and reworking ideas. When NoTosh works with businesses, we take on the role of teacher, to help them invent new products, work through engineering challenges or map out their future business plan.

When we work with schools, we’re taking each part of the Design Thinking process and marrying it with what we know from research about 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”;
“It’s like EBL”;
“This is just understanding by Design by a different name”;
“This is just the same as [insert any number of mom-and-pop consultants]”.

People have a good understanding of a model which is close, but not quite the same as design thinking, makes it harder to spot the differences and additional elements that could help enrich practice.

So what might be the key differences between a PBL project and one where design thinking is mashed with what we know makes learning great? What could we learn and borrow for our own practice, whatever we want to call it, by understanding a few important nuances?

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 PBL, this essential question is often delivered as a Design Brief: here’s the problem, now solve it. Maybe this is what Dylan Wiliam has seen, when he thinks of PBL projects being a little thin on depth, where everything seems to be about the project and not about the learning,

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. We do this by providing a provocation, in the form of provocative content or a provocative activity to launch the project. The essential question(s) will become answerable as the students dive deeper and longer into their own research, but the questions themselves don’t direct the students’ learning — the students’ own questions do, because…

2. …in Design Thinking, the student, not the teacher, writes 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 or a provocative video or text, for example, that opens up an area of study and research, 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.

This kind of provocation also works in industrial work we do. For example, engineers exploring automated vehicles don’t get a brief about automated vehicles. Instead, they get provocations over a period of days as they head out and interview people about their perceptions of mobility in the city, and from there they are able to think beyond automated vehicles, and come up with research questions their bosses could never have dreamt up.

Design firms like IDEO and even our team at NoTosh often take a brief from a client and then through our initial research, we change it. We shape the problem. 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 shared 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 continues to grab people’s attention at pre-conferences, but doesn’t translate into deep learning back in the classroom.

A large part of our work with educators is working on how to develop higher order questioning skills in students. So many Design Thinking and some PBL projects we observe are based around relatively lower order questions, or on pragmatic school and community improvement projects. 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.

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 — it’s not a ‘common language’ beyond those working in education. Students will find themselves struggling to gain traction in workplace innovation teams if they start talking in terms of “essential questions” and “success rubrics”. And in the absence of an alternative language, they may find they snap right back in to 20th century business practices that are easy to adopt, and which slow businesses down.

Design Thinking dates back to 1958, where product designers first started to put pen to paper to describe what made good design. IDEO get credit for marketing it better than any of their competitors, 30 years ago, and they continue to hold incredible influence amongst educators, in spite of their material for educators largely concentrating on problem-solving: there’s not much difference at all between their attempt at educational design thinking and what PBL aficionados have been developing almost as long as IDEO has existed.

But the language coined by IDEO for their process helped bring about the graphical interface and computer mouse and countless other great innocations, and 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 “with the end in mind”. Design Thinking encourages us to think from the other way around: what do we choose to ask, and where do we choose to go with our research when we have no idea where the end might be?

Most questions worth solving on our planet are not the ones we know the answer to already. And in our work with industrial solutions, for example, researching our way from a provocation turns up new problems, with ingenious solutions we could never have come up with out of the blue. In schools, there is still an overriding belief that children need to learn first before they can undertake anything like this kind of research. Wrong. Engineers and children alike learn from posing a question and learning as a result of answering it. All they need is a great question that matters to them, and the best way to do that is have them learn how to create those superb questions.

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. Starting with the end in mind greatly removes the potential for learning tangents:

a) tangents are less likely to appear. The immersion phase of research at the beginning of a project is narrower by design — we’re not going to study things that don’t answer our essential questions or have any obvious link to the end we have in mind); and

b) tangents are 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 stone).

From what I’ve seen of them in practice in the classroom, I see 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 not because it can’t be done — it’s because it’s hard.

A deep immersion in history goes beyond what the curriculum asks for, and opens up far more content than seems sensible… and the students do better for it:

Where final assessments are removed and replaced by a prototyping culture of feedback and extensive rebuilding, students take more risks and achieve a better end result:

When we design without an end in mind, we dive into the research and practices of formative assessment with renewed gusto, and create exciting ways for students to work out “what a good one looks like”, even when there’s no model for them to copy from:

When we create open-ended projects over which students have most of the control, and don’t need the teacher to push them through to and end product they had in mind, then you can do away with homework as it always has been, and see the benefit of students driving their own learning in and outside the classroom:

When you want to teach Shakespeare or a literary seminar course, you can help your students think like authors or critics, not just ‘learn about literature’, by giving them more content than you’d normally expect, and the tools to synthesise the big ideas for themselves:

After all that, how would we define what design thinking is? At NoTosh, we say that “Design Thinking” is merely about “designing your thinking”: what are you trying to achieve, and how do you need to go about thinking to achieve it? Divergent or convergent? Questioning or listening? Probing or observing? Finding, shaping or solving a problem?

Frankly, you could be undertaking any kind of project — or even no project at all — and the lenses of design thinking will help you learn better.

Originally published at edu.blogs.com on August 22, 2012, and updated on May 12, 2018.

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