Up front, this post is a response to Ewan McIntosh’s recent post “What’s the Difference Between PBL and Design Thinking?”. It’s taken me a few days to sort myself on this one because I wanted to clarify some similarities and differences in my own head – albeit, from a decidedly non-expert, grass-roots practitioner.

Over the 18 months in my current role, I’ve had the opportunity to attend a day with Marco Torres learning about Apple’s “Challenge Based Learning”, a day with Jay McTighe on “Schooling By Design”, three days with Ewan McIntosh and Tom Barrett exploring “Design Thinking”. All of that on top of tinkering with Project-Based Learning approaches to a handful of units over several years.

I’m in no way an expert on any of this, but I am excited by any approach to learning that puts the learner at the centre, that allows teachers as co-learners in the classroom to see the bigger picture, to make authentic connections between what the world needs, and what we are doing in our classrooms, to ask meaningful questions and explore possibilities and solutions. And I continually grapple with finding the right balance between what Ewan and Tom refer to as the “rocks”, or accountabilities of our curriculum system, and the “whirlpool” ideas of creativity and student-driven choice and questioning.

So over time, I’ve used UBD and its backwards design principles to loosely develop units of work in Religion. Topics such as “How does an understanding of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes help me to Be the Best Person I Can Be?” (Esto Vir = our school motto), allowed students to explore foundational principles of faith in life, in movies, in news, (all of their own choice) and develop their own responses. Currently, our seniors are exploring world religions through the essential question, “How do major religious traditions provide their adherents with the means to engage in interfaith dialogue, and promote unity and peace?” I don’t have an answer, and they are searching for one.

I’ve also worked with Year 7 English students on a PBL unit where we explored the issue of refugees, and we came up with the question of “What would cause someone to risk their lives to seek refuge in Australia?” – and then students investigated living conditions in a developing nation of their choice and eventually wrote an empathy narrative around the issue. And with several cohorts of Year 10 students, made to complete the Board of Studies “All My Own Work” modules? We’ve done so in context, in teams, investigating personal responses to questions like “What is success?” or “How can we make a difference in our world?”

I am guilty of being one of those educators who has “just” used Design Thinking for a school improvement project – but it was an authentic project, meaningful for the students and me, has led to changes (slowly) and has taught the students involved about “problem finding”, asking real questions, patience, collaboration, resilience, and working towards real solutions within real limitations.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to take a student project into the wider community but would love the chance. And in many cases, my attempts at DT, PBL or UBD are most likely a mash-up of more than one approach. Research would say that critical mass in achieving school change is necessary, and having a particular platform might make it easier to get teachers speaking the same language, but we do live in a re-mix culture!

My point? I am only one of many thousands of teachers who believe in shifting the paradigms of education – in a classroom, in a school, in a system, in a country… away from textbook, rote learning, away from test preparation for the sake of it – and towards authentic, meaningful, lifelong learning. And most of these teachers are on full teaching loads, balancing playground duty, full classes, pastoral needs of students, and their own professional learning… Pushing the boundaries of what they do and how they do it is not always part of a whole school or system change, but part of their own exploration into making learning more meaningful for their students. There are amazing teachers like Bianca Hewes who so generously and honestly shares her teaching journey, including her use of PBL, or my good friend Joyce who blazes the trail for PBL and is mobilizing teachers and students at my old school, or my friends Jorga and Jenny (@jcsymington) working through UBD frameworks with staff at their respective schools – or any of the thousands of inspiring teachers, tweeters and bloggers out there who keep pushing our own boundaries, reflecting on our practice, educating ourselves so we can provide the best possible learning experiences for our students.

As educators, we are moving from one size fits all, straight rows and multiple choice, through to cooperative learning and role sharing, and now towards models such as CBL, PBL and DT that embrace collaborative inquiry. Those changes are certainly needed, and slow to happen in some areas – but the conversations, and the practices, are moving in the right direction. And they have to start somewhere.

UBD may “start with the end in mind”, but DT has the notion of “tilting towards completion” – which from what I understand is akin to the subtle nudging a teacher can give towards a design thinking project to help it align with curriculum goals. Just as there might be overly narrow projects in UBD or PBL, the same could be true for a teacher starting out with Design Thinking. But in the hands of a confident teacher, a UBD or PBL or DT approach could – and should – also result in deep thinking and problem solving and collaborative inquiry on the part of the learner. But teachers and schools are like any learners – they learn at different paces, in different ways, and come in contact with new ideas at different stages of readiness.

So if a teacher, or a school, embraces a new paradigm by looking for enduring understandings from a unit of work; if a teacher works her way from carefully designing a PBL unit, towards developing the confidence and comfort to hand this design over to her students; if a teacher uses a DT framework to involve students in a school-wide problem-finding and solution experience…they are all grappling with moving away from how they themselves were most likely taught and towards what they know has lasting relevance for their students. And people who tend to be reflective practitioners are seldom content with “enough”, and constantly looking to better themselves for the sake of their students.

Absolutely, our goal must “not be the mastery of subject matter, but of one’s person.” (David Orr, in “What is Education For?” via George Couros) But as passionate educators who are currently caught between “rocks” and “whirlpools”, the reality is that we need to continually explore ways to provide deep, authentic, meaningful learning for our students within the systems we have, whilst advocating for better ones for our children’s future.

Understanding and learning from different traditions adds depth to our own practice, skills, and knowledge – whether that be drawing from both “whole language” and “phonics” approaches to reading, or appreciating the message of love and compassion inherent in all religions, or blending the best of different learning frameworks. Whatever name we call the framework, we probably are as Ewan says “splitting hairs” – but I think it is unfair to say the differences are minimal on the one hand, yet through language choice like “narrowly designed”, or “relatively lower order”, or “just school/community improvement” imply that one approach is inherently superior to another.

 As Pi says, in Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi”, “If there’s only one nation in the sky, shouldn’t all passports be valid for it?” Teachers face enough opposition from some sectors of the world – we’d do better to focus on supporting each other in our journey. I’m not mad… just taking part in the discussion 🙂… nuff said!


7 thoughts on “PBL, CBL, DT and UBD

  1. Thanks for your reflections, Denise. As I said repeatedly in the blog post, *many* (and in my experience it’s more like “most”) PBL examples I see described, taught or analysed look at relatively closed lower-order questions, but not all of them. And the ones you cite above are VERY much higher order, and have those “ungoogleable” answers we have to dig deep on. Crafting higher order questions is not a given, and something you’ve clearly “got” (and worked on).

    Those are the precise initial questions you could use the design thinking process with, seeing how pupils take the same starter immersion materials and come up with different angles on the same question, and then take it to completion in their own way (i.e. they choose the final product of learning that they want to produce) – you know the process, and the point behind it: letting learners see where they are in a project, and how much of the task in hand might be left.

    The notion of “tilting towards completion” is not really so much about tilting towards curricular goals – the curricular goals are normally covered in the immersion phase and determined by the choice of material you as the teacher initially put in there. It’s about using the planning experience you had on a given project, thinking through would could happen, to see which paths feel richest, and which feel lower order or might peter out after a while. It’s definitely not about having the end in mind, as that choice is still 100% with the students. I hope that helps. So much of this is about language, but I don’t apologise for splitting the hairs. They’re important hairs that help us understand small changes that can lead to bigger impacts, no?

    • Thanks for taking the time to reply, Ewan. My issue was not with my own ability to create higher order questions, or my ability to work with my students to do so – I suppose I was just trying to establish that I have had a go at implementing various methodologies, and whilst not an expert at any of them, I have a go for the sake of my students’ learning – and my own. But I recognise that depending on the students and their readiness, and the topic, and the time of year, I would need to adjust the approach to suit.
      My main concern is that whilst we are working with teachers and students to develop higher order thinking, and student ownership of learning, we need to be mindful that teachers and schools are somewhere along a continuum in this journey. Students need to develop the skills – and confidence – to work in an increasingly self-directed, active and collaborative manner. And teachers – and schools -need to work their way towards co-design of learning with students and away from dictating content. But this takes time, and readiness. In the same way we need to allow for individual needs of the learner, we need to be conscious that not all teachers can move from the way they have always taught straight into a Design Thinking approach- and that’s why I think it is more helpful to look for how the various methodologies and approaches can support each other, rather than advocate that there is one inherently better approach. (eg: Case in point, a Year 12 group where I am currently working with their new teacher at the very end of their schooling – boys are used to teacher input and textbook work – teacher has gone on leave, new teacher taken over with 8 weeks to go in their year; work has therefore been highly scaffolded for them – and for the teacher – using Essential Questions to frame the thinking and the work – but to push a DT approach in these circumstances would be unfair for the new teacher, and the boys haven’t got the collaborative skills or mindset to take this approach… but with other teachers and other classes, perhaps!)
      Thanks for clarifying the “tilting towards completion” term as well! Regards… D

  2. Nice work yet again, Denise 🙂
    You’ve done a great job of sorting through the parts and I agree with your position and understanding. What a wonderfully rich English topic you speak about – I hope we end up with some units like that.
    Keep up the good fight… and all that thinking…

    • Thanks Jenny – sorry to take so long to reply! The English unit was done with Year 7 at Delany – and the kids were briliant. That was the unit where they were allocated groups by learning styles, and then had to interview 3 people in the school community about what they thought was important about working in teams – from all the students’ feedback, we developed our “top 5” guidelines for effective collaboration. Only problem was, the year came to an end. Can imagine you doing something similar, for sure – your Geography work with the girls has been brilliant – your thinking continually amazes me (although it shouldn’t – you just are!)

  3. Pingback: PBL, Challenge Based Learning, Design Thinking and Understanding by Design | Memoria habitante en…

  4. Hi Denise

    I have only just started following your blog and was wondering how these teaching/learning approaches would sit with students who struggle to work independently due to learning difficulties or disabilities but are in the mainstream classroom? I am a pre-service teacher with an Asperger’s son who is in year 8 who struggles when he has to work in a less teacher directed manner. This thought only occurred to me as I was reading your post and all the replies. I am new to it all but am thoroughly enjoying reading and learning from the more experienced teachers in my PLN.

    Jane Logan

    • Hi, Jane. Thanks so much for your comment. I love seeing how kids get thoroughly engaged when doing something they love, and when a unit is carefully built around a great question or project, this can happen for most kids. But the question you raise is one I am continually grappling with myself. I am currently in a school where in Year 7 there are quite a few students on the autism spectrum, and like your son, they too struggle with less structured environments. I know some kids need more structure and teacher direction, and others thrive when constraints of “traditional” teaching are removed. A unit earlier this year was quite difficult for some kids as I didn’t anticipate how much they would struggle with the open nature of the task.

      The Year 7 refugee example I wrote about in the post was in a different school, and I didn’t have kids on the spectrum in that class. I did, however, have quite a few students with varying degrees of learning needs in a mixed ability mainstream class: ESL, learning difficulties, and two with mild intellectual difficulties as well. When I did that unit with the kids, I wanted them all included and all in a position to participate.

      We started by doing a multiple intelligences survey as a means of illustrating the different strengths and interests in the class. Then the kids went in pairs to interview staff members around the school on what makes collaboration in the workplace work. We used this feedback together to script a short list of clear guidelines for working in teams. The use of a podcast and a picture book as core texts meant that these were accessible to all students. I structured the groups for this task as it was my first go – and the students’ – with a ‘real’ pbl unit. So in my book, I sorted the kids into independent, needs some support, and needs lots of support. I also used the multiple intelligences feedback to build mixed ability, mixed ‘inteliigences’ groups, and with pretty good success!

      Once the kids started working, some groups took off and needed very little guidance. This then freed me up to keep checking in with groups where some of the kids needed more structure. Some of the more independent learners were also learning heaps about collaborating with kids they wouldn’t normally work with, and most of these became great mentors for the kids who needed more support. It certainly wasn’t perfect and required a lot of thought at the front end to build in success, but it paid off.

      So I suppose that’s where I struggle… I know it’s great to throw the question development to the kids and let them construct their own learning as much as is possible, but I also know that not all kids have the skills required to do that.. At least up front. And that’s why I believe the teacher needs to use her judgment to ‘mix it up’ a bit as she knows her kids and needs to orchestrate the learning somewhat to ensure all kids learn, and are engaged in tasks at an appropriate level of challenge.

      So no real answer, just a desire to keep working through my own skills and sorting through what I think is best for the kids I’ve got at any given time… Hope this helps a little! And thanks for following.

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