Reflection: PBL and Design Thinking


In October, I wrote about developing more Project Based Learning units or Design Thinking units.  While I still totally LOVE the idea of using more of these types of units in my classes, this year I felt like they really fell flat.  I was super-frustrated with myself because of it, but after some serious thinking, I realized there were a couple of reasons why the units didn’t work as well as I had hoped.  First, I was trying to do too much.  Second, I didn’t spend enough time developing the plan.  Third, the mix of kids wasn’t great for what I was trying to do.

Doing Too Much

If I had just kept with my original understanding of PBL, it probably would have worked out better.  But because our school as a whole was supposed to be working toward Design Thinking, I attempted to throw all those concepts into my units as well.  The problem is that while sure, the ideas can translate into a humanities-type course, it really seems intended more for science courses.  With everything else I was trying to do, my brain and my planning just couldn’t make that leap.  So I tried to include empathy and prototyping, when I should have just done what I already know to do.  My previous PBLs included those things, but without the names.  I think I tried to emphasize the specific DT design more than the true goals of connection, communication, revision, and collaboration.

Not Enough Time

When I developed my first PBL for the course I was taking, I spent nearly an entire semester working on it.  And it turned out AWESOME.  The next year, I spent a good part of the summer planning.  And it turned out REALLY WELL.  But this year, I made major changes to my previously awesome unit and tried to plan out two more.  These kinds of units just take a huge amount of effort to design well, and I didn’t give them the time they deserved or needed.  As a result, everything was just kind of yuck.  I didn’t enjoy facilitating them and I don’t think the kids got as much out of them.  In general, it was a big disappointment.

Mix of Kids

I’ve really struggled with my teaching this year overall.  I’ve felt like I’ve lost my touch.  But when I’m not overemotional about it, I realize that a lot of the kids I have this year don’t really function well in the student-directed environment that PBL needs.  Quite a few of my classes need a lot more leadership from me.  Admittedly, a lot of this goes back to the planning.  If I’d taken more time to plan things out, the students would have known better what to do, plus I would have had more energy to direct students when they were lost.  Even so, several of my classes just are too distractible to handle these big projects well.  Maybe smaller units could have worked better, but not the larger units I had planned.

The Lesson

I think it’s reasonable for me to design one big PBL per year.  Any more than that, and I just won’t do it well.  If I can re-use the units from previous years, that will be great — though that kind of goes against the idea of PBL because once the problem is solved, why have kids solve it again and again?  Still, I have to do what will keep me sane but still be good teaching.  Additionally, I need to be able to assess my students’ personalities and abilities early in the year and plan to do the big units during second semester.  Trying to do them earlier in the year was hard because I didn’t know the kids well enough yet to understand how much direction they were going to need.

While perhaps this wasn’t a good year for PBL as far as the students were concerned, I think at least I learned some things I can apply to future experiences.


One thought on “Reflection: PBL and Design Thinking

  1. Good lessons learned for next year.
    Very smart of you to reflect early and record your conclusions.
    A whole summer tends to make them fade away.

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