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!