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Use Design Thinking to provide the structure for your PBL unit

A criticism which is occasionally directed at project-based learning is that it lacks structure. The approach to PBL which suggests providing students with an ambiguous, unstructured problem to make sense of and work through can instead leave them uncertain and stagnant, unsure of what to do. It’s hard for them to gauge their progress through the project or what the next step should be, which impacts their motivation. Similarly, an unstructured project makes it more difficult for teachers to plan and to identify how and where to introduce the explicit teaching of the content necessary for students to better understand the problem or potential solutions.


The obvious answer to these conundrums is to create a highly structured and scaffolded project-based unit. But how? Is there a single, consistent structure which can be leveraged across different subjects and focus areas, which can provide continuity for students and help them refine their skills project after project? There is – it is called Design Thinking – and we want to set out how we think it can be used to form the bedrock of every project you create.


What is Design Thinking?


Design Thinking is not just about design. It is a process for creative problem solving. Having a process makes it easier for designers and innovators to work through problems and create solutions, whether physical or conceptual. It emphasises understanding a problem from all angles and how that problem is manifesting for the people or groups impacted by it. In doing so, it ensures solution design does not occur in a vacuum, and that a better solution can be developed which is based on the pain points of the people who need it the most.

The most widely accepted model for Design Thinking is the one used by the Stanford University School of Design. It has five core stages which are set out below.


The Design Thinking process
  • Empathise with end users (the people you are designing for) to understand their struggles, needs, and motivations

  • Define the single problem to be solved by considering all possible problems and which one, if solved, will have the biggest impact

  • Ideate to generate multiple potential solution ideas, evaluate them, then choose the best one

  • Prototype your idea to create a simple model of your solution. This allows you to test it before creating the final product

  • Test your prototype to get feedback from end users and make changes to the prototype, to then be tested again


Though Design Thinking might seem a linear process, it in fact is comprised of smaller loops. For example, students might go from the Empathise to the Define stage but, if they can’t find a problem to define which seems significant enough, it might mean that they haven’t truly understood the problem’s impact; this might necessitate a return to the Empathise stage. Similarly, once a prototype has been created and tested, students may need to re-design their prototype and then test it again. They may even need to return to the Ideate stage if the solution idea they had initially chosen proves to be unworkable.


How to use Design Thinking in PBL


Here are some simple, actionable strategies which you can use to make Design Thinking the core of your PBL units.


  • Structure your unit in levels. We advocate designing a PBL unit in levels, based on the Design Thinking process. You could choose to create five separate levels based on each of the five stages, or you might choose to group some together (for example, Empathise & Define could be one level, Prototype & Test another). This not only taps into aspects of gamification which can be highly motivating for students, it also creates clear progress checkpoints for students. They should know exactly where they should be at by the end of each level; for example, after the Empathise & Define level they should have chosen the aspect of the problem they will attempt to create a solution for, and after the Ideate level they must have chosen their one solution idea to start prototyping. It also provides a singularity of focus within each level.

  • Identify the core skills students will need in each level and scaffold them. For students to understand the impact of a problem in the Empathise stage, they will need to develop empathy to be able to see the problem from another’s perspective. They’ll also need to develop good inquiry questions so that they can delve deeply into a problem to better understand it. In the Ideate stage, by contrast, students will need to use techniques to help them generate multiple solution ideas, and then will require critical thinking skills to evaluate which solution idea might be most feasible or impactful. These soft skills are often ‘assumed’ skills that students can pick up as they go, almost by osmosis, but teaching them explicitly is actually one of the most important steps you can take in ensuring a successful project outcome. By thinking about your PBL unit through the lens of Design Thinking, you’ll bring these skills to the forefront of your planning and will better identify how to explicitly teach and model them.

  • Use it to sequence content integration into a unit. Design Thinking is a useful frame through which you can understand and plan content’s role in helping students move through the unit. We’ve spoken previously about how to choose subjects for an interdisciplinary unit; Design Thinking is the second part of that equation in structuring the obvious entry points for content from those different subjects. For example, content from the ‘lead’ subject – that which most closely ties into the project’s overarching theme – should be heavily built into the Empathise and Define levels. Wendy Keen talked about this same strategy in describing the role of Science in Melbourne Girls’ College’s project on ocean plastic waste. If one subject will help students understand how a problem is occurring, the reasons why it is occurring, and what its impacts are or will be, it should be built into the Empathise and Define levels. However, if a subject’s content can instead be better used to help students identify and develop a potential solution, it should be held in reserve until the Ideate or the Prototype levels; this was the case with Melbourne Girls’ College’s use of English and Technology. Structuring your unit based on Design Thinking is therefore a quick and easy way to map out when you need to introduce a subject into an interdisciplinary project, as not all of them need to be integrated from the start.


What if students are not building anything?


As we mentioned earlier, Design Thinking doesn’t necessarily imply a physical product or solution as a prerequisite. It can be used as the foundation for any PBL unit, even if the unit is being run in a subject where a physical product is not generally an option. For example, in a Humanities unit (like English or History) where a written or spoken task might be more appropriate, the Ideate section can be reframed as the planning stage, and the Prototype & Test section can normalise the practice of gaining peer feedback before a final submission. In these instances, teams are encouraged to create a draft of their written or spoken task – the prototype – and show/perform it to other groups to get their feedback, or even for another team to mark it against a shared rubric. This both normalises peer review and an iterative process to the creation of the project’s end product, regardless of the form.


Design Thinking is a powerful tool. It prompts students to investigate, to empathise with others, and to take a methodical approach to problem solving. Just as its use promotes better solutions in the real world, adopting it as the basis of your PBL unit will bring clarity, structure, and greater focus on skill development.

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