Learning Through Projects – PBL,…PBL, DT, UbD?!

John Dewey (CC Image)

To clarify, the title of the blog post indicates a variety of pedagogy related to learning in some way by using projects. These could be Project-based Learning (PBL), Problem-based Learning (…PBL), Design Thinking (DT) and Understanding by Design (UbD) to name but a few. My blog post is inspired by reading through Bianca Hewes post ‘Just another boring school project?’ and then Ewan McIntosh’s ‘What’s the difference between PBL and Design Thinking?’

Is there really a need to argue over the distinction between these? Are they really entirely of the same ilk? I don’t think so.

As an educator, you know that some groups of students are able to develop a brilliant understanding of a concept without much guidance and can develop complex questions and answers around these difficult ideas. You know also that some groups, with appropriate questioning and support from the teacher, can produce magnificent work that allows them to truly develop their grasp of whatever topic you are working on. This doesn’t mean that one way is better than the other. That argument can really be applied to any of the pedagogy mentioned above. It’s not really an attempt to compare any of them with each other, but within Project-based Learning for example, you could give more or less guidance depending on your students. The same can apply to Design Thinking, though it would be a bit taboo to give too much guidance.

In my teaching I often do some kind of learning through a project, and I’ve seen many of my students’ work in other projects being run by my excellent colleagues. Each of the projects I run are slightly different, and each of the projects I’ve seen from my colleagues are different. That can be down to different teaching styles, but also down to the students that we’re teaching. Often projects are a great opportunity to be very open-ended: set a general theme, students can use whatever resources they want, can research whatever questions they want and produce anything they want. Projects can also be more controlled by the teacher: set specific questions that need answered, get students to use specific resources, have a particular product or aim to work towards.

With time being a particular issue in the classroom, having a controlled set up is often the way it goes. It means that outcomes can be met – yes, these things that we need students to understand for exams and skills that they need to develop. I often use projects with groups to develop their skills of a broad range of online tools and presentation software. Each lesson we have laptops, and each lesson they are researching topics and producing resources or posting their work in a variety of media (see my post ‘Taking students beyond their e-learning boundaries’). Projects based ‘offline’ are often equally as productive, with research using books, lots of paper, pens, cameras, microphones and so on. It’s important that students, whilst in some cases needing guidance to meet certain criteria, are given the freedom to explore different media. This is possible using any pedagogical approach to learning with projects.

There is an excellent case to be made about developing students abilities to really get stuck into a topic and understand it themselves; to unearth the essential questions – and developing higher-level thinking skills to allow them to come up with these efficiently and effectively. This is covered under the Design Thinking umbrella (see Ewan’s post from earlier) and sounds amazing, but is there really the lesson time for an individual teacher or a small group of teachers to give these opportunities to their students? It’s very cynical, I know, but time really is a considerably hindrance. We all want our students to be as independent as possible, to be able to prepare for lessons by researching ideas beforehand and being effective at coming up with the most important questions. This would be the ideal. I can see how a whole-school approach to Design Thinking could be fantastic, with training for teachers in how best to deliver their lessons in this way.

Is this really the same thing as project-based learning? I don’t think so. It ends up very much like PBL, but with much of the journey spent discovering the topic and the students coming up with their own questions, which they then spend traditional PBL time on producing their end products/resources. I certainly don’t buy the whole ‘In Design Thinking students can use whatever medium they want’ because that’s the case in any other pedagogical approach to projects if you want it to be.

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