PBL vs. Design Thinking?

Following is my reply to a post by Master Blogger Bianca Hewes which is itself a response to a post by Ewan McIntosh and his criticism of project-based learning.  I so enjoyed my return to thinking about models-based reasoning and its relationship to PBL that I offer it to you here, in case you missed it on Bianca’s blog.

In my former incarnation as a science teacher, I became deeply invested in an instructional mode fondly known as models-based reasoning, or MBR, growing out of work at the University of California, Davis, University of Arizona and elsewhere.

Models-based reasoning, at its root, presents natural phenomena to students under carefully designed/constructed circumstances so that students may perceive the phenomenon such that discreet elements of the phenomenon may be teased out of the bigger picture. Students then undertake a collaborative and sequential process of reasoning and debate to arrive at precise understanding of the concept at hand. This methodology began in the disciplines of physics and chemistry, but thoughtful teachers in the life sciences are also using this to great benefit, particularly in the areas of genetics and evolution.

MBR is a very carefully guided process, a cognitive analogue to PBL. MBR does not take a student by the scruff and shove him/her outside with the command, “Perceive and Reason!” Why? Because students lack observational skills and the scaffold to understand simple phenomena, something required before a student can step into a very complex world and make empirical sense of it. While eager to learn and very capable, they are ignorant of both fact and concept.

Failing to carefully construct the learning context to narrow a student’s perceptual options provides too many phenomenological diversions, quickly leading to the hardening of misconceptions (shared and often easy, thus powerful, simplifications) students bring into the room; in short, the method can fail as predictably as having students memorize tables of factoids. I suspect the same holds true for any discipline, as our culture (the American political process comes screaming to mind as I write this) is rife with examples of unthinking, uncritical perception, something mercilessly exploited by well-oiled marketing machines. People simply believe what they’re told, thanks to a lack of cognitive skill.

My understanding of Design Thinking is that it is a powerful practice developed for solving complex problems, and practiced by individuals who have already acquired higher-order thinking skills. Design Thinking as a teaching/learning method does not seem to be appropriate even for collegiate-level learners unless they already have a body of knowledge and effective collaborative skills under their belts. Gaming as a teaching/learning modality is informative here: when gamers come together to solve complex problems, they bring their considerable and long-established gaming and social skills to the process. You don’t throw a non-gamer into the pool with skilled gamers as they tackle a complex project. I’ve been that person; it doesn’t work.

I suspect those who hold DT as superior to PBL will, when in the presence of flesh and blood adolescents, eventually concede that while DT has its place in advanced settings, our students first need to undertake a journey in communication and logic, to walk before they sprint. PBL in the hands of cognitive nurturers like Bianca Hewes is that very process.


2 Responses to PBL vs. Design Thinking?

  1. Ingrid Salim says:

    Just read this piece as it was part of a forward regarding illuminate. I love your description of MBR, and of your consideration of where Design and Gaming do and don’t fit, and I agree with you. I am trying to use a project-based learning approach (DaVinci style) with chemcom, where the overarching issue is determined by a question and project, and the pedagogy is as MBR as possible. I have a UC student teacher who is having a hard time seeing it all!

    Can I just copy your blog description of MBR and share it, or do you have another piece you’ve written? I’d like to share with colleagues and this student teacher….and you’re very articulate

    • Bill says:

      You’re very welcome to use this as you need. I haven’t written anything else on MBR, and it only appears here because it fit so well in this context. Glad you saw it!

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