Project-Based Learning is NOT (Necessarily) Design Thinking

I’ve read a lot recently about the wonders of Project-Based Learning, affectionately known in educational circles as ‘PBL.’ I admit that I have employed this engaging strategy as part of my teaching repertoire during my career. Design thinking is n. Both are useful in a teaching and learning situation and each has merits. But many educators confuse PBL with the much more dynamic process of ‘design thinking.’ In my view they are as different as gold leaf is to the 24-carat variety. Here’s my side-by-side comparison:

PBL – Product Focus

  • Teacher provides learning objective or intended outcome of project
  • Students are asked to create much the same product using similar materials
  • Students work competitively, often solo
  • Projects sometimes come in the form of pre-prepared ‘packets’ of paper-pencil activities
  • Projects engage students in low level innovation and critical thinking
  • Projects do not necessarily involve a process approach
  • Projects do not necessarily solve for a real human need, but engage students in a series of fictional tasks
  • Project is outcome centered, focus is on production of product
  • Static rubric assessment is used for evaluation
  • Projects generally geared to a single subject with limited cross curricular connection
  • Projects can be competed in fewer class periods
 

Design Thinking – Process Focus

  • Challenges begin with student interest and thorough research of a human need
  • There is no expectation of a particular outcome; projects may be 3-D models or involve movement and motion to demonstrate an experience
  • Students determine their own trajectory toward solution
  • Teachers become guides, mentors, and partners in exploration/innovation
  • Process allows multiple pathways to achievement of multiple academic and social emotional learning outcomes
  • Students are provided ample time to share, test, and reiterate their solutions
  • Students collaborate in teams
  • Process focus is on reiteration of product or experience
  • Students reflect on and articulate results
  • Students learn to value critique
  • Challenges are naturally integrated across the curriculum
  • Process is geared to higher level thinking and discovery
  • Assessment instruments are flexible
  • Process is fluid, ongoing, and fits multiple challenge situations
  • Process takes time

 There are benefits to both of these learning strategies, of course. And effective teaching can occur through either. Both take time and careful planning. But, to my mind, the multi-dimensional learning that happens through a design thinking challenge far outweighs the product as outcome objective found in PBL. The process of design thinking, and its capacity to empower students to empathize with  human needs, to creatively solve problems, to be resilient, and to competently innovate, provides a more robust structure for life long learning.

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