Digital Age Teaching and Learning

Design Thinking: A Perfect Complement to Project Based Learning

Design Thinking: A Perfect Complement to Project Based Learning

Imagine an important piece to an idealistic world for you.  Say for example you want to wake up and have breakfast made and the coffee on with zero effort.  How can you make this happen?  There are a number of paths you could use to achieve waking up to this glorious reality including crock pots, timed coffee makers or overnight breakfast casseroles you can just pop in the oven.  Then you’ve just got to take your pick and make it all happen the night before.

Discover Design Thinking

This process of problem solving by working backwards is known as “design thinking.”  It’s a pretty handy way to think and can open up a whole new world of possibilities.  With a can-do attitude, design thinking encourages considering a wide range of solutions or possibilities and then choosing one.  A few prototypes may be made or trials done to determine what the preferred solution is.  Then, you must figure out how to create the solution.

There are a few different models of design thinking that show some elements to consider during the process.  One model produced by Standford d-school suggests following the process outlined below.  Although it is listed linearly here- it may be used, repeated, done backwards or any way that seems to best support progress.

Empathize – This part of the design process involves getting in touch with people who will use the product of the design work.  For teachers, it would mean understanding their students.  For students, it can vary, depending on the project at hand.

Define – From the research in the “empathize stage”, a problem is defined.  A challenge is taken on.  The information from the “empathize” stage is boiled down and a specific challenge is chosen to work with.

Ideate – In this stage, brainstorming happens.  Thinking outside of the box is encouraged.  Any and all ideas are welcomed and then narrowed down.  Working in a team is helpful at this stage as ideas from one person build on others’.  Creativity is allowed to reign free.

Prototype – Some or one of the ideas from the “ideate” stage are put into action and created in simple form.  Sometimes this stage returns to the “ideate” stage as new ideas are born through the creation process.  The final users are invited to interact with the prototypes.

Test – This is when the prototype or prototypes are shown to users or the audience intended.  Based on their comments and experience, the final solution is modified and perfected.  Sometimes, this stage reveals that radical changes must happen and the process must be started all over again.

Use Design Thinking in your PBL Classroom

In the project based learning (PBL) classroom, design thinking can help you plan project outlines or whole units for your students and can also help your students plan their projects!  Using each step will help you and your students view their projects as cycles.  The process guides you and them through the cycle, giving direction and purpose at each stage.  Here are some ideas for how it might work for you, the teacher, and students:


Teacher – Get to know your students.  Determine their skills, strengths and weaknesses.  Find out what their interests are and what sparks them!

Students – Explore the community and world.  Figure out where interests lie.  Identify passions.


Teacher – Choose a skill to develop, a curriculum unit topic or standards to address.  This choice should relate to the initial stage and what you learned from your students.

Students – Choose a topic and a question or problem to address.


Teacher – Develop project parameters.  Define a curriculum unit.  Figure out how to address those standards.  Decide how to teach a skill.

Students – Choose a method or strategy to work with.  Will the project lead to a video, a play, a new product or a research paper?  Will the end product be targeted towards parents, the principal, the mayor or the president?

Prototype and Test:

Teacher – Try the project parameters or study unit with your current students.  Alternatively, explain two options to them and have them pick which one to try!  In teaching, the prototype and test phases are a constant.  We must constantly be prepared to test our ideas, (even fail sometimes!) modify and try again.  With an attitude like this, we will continually improve.

Students – Outline what a few project end products may look like.  Share them with classmates, the teacher and parents.  Explore other options using the feedback and work towards picking one option.

Design thinking and PBL seem to go together hand-in-hand.  It’s a useful tool to maximize creativity and keep the project cycle moving.  In itself, it’s a useful skill for students to learn.  When applied to PBL, it can truly guide the process and allow students to experience creation in a whole new way.  For teachers, this adjustment in developing lesson plans and curriculum may be just the change necessary to take our teaching to the next level.  It helps us embrace the process, accept failure as part of the journey, and continually perfect our teaching.

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