PBL, CBL, DT and UBD

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!

Two Weeks with the Team

It’s been just on two weeks since my first post ever. When I last wrote, I’d been working with a Year 11 group, using a Design Thinking process to re-envisage the Leadership Structure at our school. They’d had a couple of set-backs, and for reasons including time constraints, weren’t able to go ahead with all they had planned.

We re-grouped a week and a bit ago. Chatted about real life, and how things don’t always go as planned, but that the mark of a leader is how they respond under those circumstances. Leadership speeches and voting will take place in Week 5, so mid-Week 3 they didn’t have a whole lot of time to plead their case or make major adjustments. They broke into pairs – two drafting a letter to the principal, two researching other schools, a few brainstorming ideas on the whiteboard. They left our meeting with a draft proposal, combining their ideas about leadership selection and portfolios, but crafted to fit within existing structures and titles.

“Bob”, as I’ll call him, was one of the boys leading the charge – the one who came with the original shortlist of changes they wanted. And it is in Bob I’ve seen the greatest growth and learning. He was the one who was a bit nervous when the process was opened up to all of Year 11, as he had a firm idea of what he thought should happen. He wasn’t so sure that those boys “just getting out of class” to share in initial meetings was fair. But he relaxed with the process, and could see over time the value in consulting, discussing, being inclusive and listening.

Bob has been a driving force in moving the process forward. And he was probably the most upset when it was cut short. He organized the group to meet again, had charge of the laptop and led the letter-drafting process. He forwarded the draft to a couple of key teachers for feedback. But he bounced back.

So you can imagine how shocked I was when he told me on Wednesday that he’d had second thoughts about leadership and wasn’t going to put in for captain. I wanted to shake him and say, “Wake up! We need leaders like you who care and who have initiative!”  I was upset that maybe the set-backs had proven too much.

But it wasn’t that… he told me he had just been reflecting on what it meant to be a leader. And he was concerned that maybe he didn’t have what it took to take his form forward. That he had a really firm idea of where things should go, but that it wasn’t representative of the form in general. He was concerned that whilst the teachers were encouraging and saw him as leadership material, he wouldn’t really represent his classmates. And if he was worried about relationships, that would detract from a focus on his studies. So he had strong doubts about his own motives for seeking leadership.

I was sad… but felt privileged at the same time, to see that level of self-awareness in a young man of 16. Would that I had been capable of such reflection at that age! I didn’t want to push him into putting forward for captaincy, because that might only reinforce his thinking that he was the teachers’ choice… but at the same time, thought anyone capable of such reflection would be such an asset to a leadership team. So I just told him it had to be his choice, reiterated what I saw as his strengths, and reminded him that whatever the leadership team accomplished, the hope would be to leave a legacy not just for the class of 2013, but for the juniors to follow as well. And that being a leader doesn’t mean you have to be THE captain, that sharing ideas and contributing to a vision is also being a leader.

In the end, Bob and the team submitted a proposal to the principal on Thursday, with a header “From The Design Thinkers”… I didn’t ask him if he wants to be captain or not, but so admire his willingness to learn from the process and be guided by what is right for him, not by what others in positions of authority want him to do.

And again, on reflection – probably a lot of parallels in this story for us teachers – do we see ourselves as leaders, regardless of title? Do we go for a title because it seems the right thing to do? Are we guided by our core beliefs in choosing an authentic pathway for ourselves? Do we maintain the courage of our convictions and bounce back in the face of defeat? I do know Bob has given me a lot to think about in my own role…

When Design Thinking ‘Fails’: Sometimes Life Gives You Lemons…

For many months now, I’ve been wanting to start blogging. I’ve really enjoyed reading posts from so many incredible educators… Australian educators like @7MrsJames, @BiancaH80, @abiwoldhuis, @whatedsaid, @malynmawby, @adlacoure, @simoncrook, @cpaterso, @gregwhitby, @heyjudeonline and further afield, @engaginged and almost everyone through @edutopia. The volume of thoughts, opinions, reflection, the honesty and the challenges, the real conversations… I’m loving it, but sometimes I can’t even sleep! Like an over-tired infant given too much stimulation.

Why start blogging now? I’ve been toying with two things… One, finding my ‘voice’. Who am I and what have I got that’s worth saying? And secondly, what am I passionate enough about to actually take the time to reflect on and write about? (See my “About” page for more, if interested…)

Well, at the moment, my students, or more specifically, our future leaders and their voices.

Back in March, teams of middle leaders from schools participating in the Smarter Schools National Partnership project had the opportunity to work with @ewanmcintosh and @tombarrett, exploring the potential of ‘Design Thinking’ in schools. Not having a classroom of my own this year, my project focus developed as a Year 11 investigation into Student Leadership. I was hoping to work with the boys, but they actually sought me out first with the desire to explore how they could be more effective leaders in 2013. This made it even easier to begin a design thinking project with a real world context.

Any Year 11 student interested was welcome to join the conversation, and after a few meetings brainstorming issues, concerns and ideas, we had developed three key questions, with teams attached to each question. Each team had one or more teacher mentors as well, to act as facilitators. We set up a wiki as a base for sharing ideas, collecting tools, documenting progress and reflections. The kids were excited, the teachers were excited and there was a real energy around seeing this group of boys drive a school initiative that they were so passionate about.

Early on, I did caution the boys that change is slow, and that perhaps any changes they initiated for their Year 12 mightn’t be fully realised for several years. We talked through the design process, the need for empathy, questions, ideas, iteration, prototyping and reflection. I was overwhelmed by how thoughtful the boys were, their main concern being a desire to leave a legacy for the younger boys, to find ways to develop leadership skills in the juniors. (Mind you, it’s not that we don’t have a leadership structure here, it’s just that the boys wanted to make it more effective).

One group in particular had really taken the process on… They developed a survey to send to students at a few other high schools to see what those students liked about their own leadership structures. The hope was then to glean some good ideas from other schools and propose some meaningful changes here. To ensure the survey was okay, they sent it to our teachers to have a look, before going ‘live’.

Just before the holidays, I had to present in front of Tom and Ewan from NoTosh and my colleagues about our project to date. What was the project? What had students learned? (patience, communication, collaboration) What would the next step be? (surveys, proposals for changes) Did I foresee any challenges? (status quo). And at the end, playing devil’s advocate, Ewan asked if I thought this would just be a paper exercise. I replied that if it was, I’d be gutted as I would hate to think I was bringing these students along on a journey to nowhere.

Now the lemon bit… I had leave for a few weeks to catch up with family and friends in hometown LA. Whilst away, the boys were told they didn’t need to do a design thinking process. No survey. As the general structure for leadership was already set, they could propose portfolios, but there was no time for anything else.

The rebel in me wanted to cry out on behalf of these great kids, “How could you NOT give them the chance to carry out this brilliant process? How could you NOT give them a voice in their own leadership?” Everything I know, have read, have researched, that I feel intuitively says that listening to kids and giving them a say makes a WORLD of difference in their engagement and their learning. So how could anyone NOT want them to have this opportunity? I didn’t like the status quo. They felt defeated, and so did I (but I couldn’t let them see that, could I?)

And the lemonade bit? With a few days to think and reflect, I think I know how… we all have our own back-stories, our own experiences, our own mind-sets. And just because I feel something to be right and worthy does not make it so in someone else’s reality. If that was the case, great research and great educators would change schools in no time at all. Change is hard precisely BECAUSE we are individuals, and each of us needs time, and motivation, and purpose to work towards what is different, and new, and perhaps scary because it is not what we have always known…

And there are great lessons for the boys to learn, too, in terms of their own development as leaders… and as human beings. Patience. Listening. Knowing that someone else’s reality may not match their own, and reflecting on how to still get on within those constraints. So the boys and I have had a quick chat, with a strategy session soon to follow. They can still talk to mates from other schools, still bring ideas to the table in terms of portfolios or other structures… and as for all the other things they want to introduce? Slowly, slowly, through conversation, inclusion, patience, ideation, prototyping, reflection. And hopefully, their legacy will not only be some great new ideas for leadership in the school, but some lessons learned that they can pass on to future leaders here about how to be a real leader, how to bounce back, how to work with others, how to keep going when the going gets tough. And on reflection, perhaps for me that is the real value of design thinking or other real-world learning experiences… it’s not that every learning experience will change the world, but that every learning experience can potentially change the individual and how they see the world.

Would love to have your thoughts, comments, feedback and similar experiences…!