Photo by Jonathan Francisca on Unsplash

This week is an opportunity for me to revisit some concepts that have had a huge impact on me not only as a teacher, but as a leader, and a coach.  There are two big ideas from the reading that I want to focus my post on, that is Project Based Learning (PBL), and Design Thinking(DT).

Project Based Learning

I have been a fan of Project Based Learning since I first discovered it 6 years ago at Korean International School. I have had the opportunity to structure learning experiences using this framework, as well as teach fellow educators how to use PBL elements and structures in their own classrooms. Project Based Learning is a powerful structure for driving learning in an authentic manner. HERE is a great video from PBL Works as an introduction to the framework of PBL. The PBL Works website also has some fantastic resources to get started with PBL. HERE is a direct link to their explanation of the essential parts of a Gold Standard PBL. Lastly, HERE is a presentation that I created for educators as an introduction to PBL.

Essential PBL Elements –

Project Based Learning in Action!

One example that I would like to speak to is from my time as a grade nine East Asian Studies teacher. One of our topics of study was World War II from an East Asian context. My first year teaching the course, we had the students simply write research essays, but after learning about PBL, we decided to structure it using the PBL framework the following year. Additionally, we worked with grade nine English teachers, as we wanted to structure the PBL as a transdisciplinary assessment.  We started with an idea, rather than an essay, students would get a picture from the time period we were studying with the Question: “What story does this picture tell”? The students were responsible for answering this question through a book expert based on one of the characters in the picture. The key Knowledge, Skills, and Understandings were clearly communicated at the beginning. They were responsible for a narrative of one of the characters, not an entire novel, but an excerpt from a novel, that would be backed by good historical research. This one very broad question, would lead to Sustained Inquiry through research and further questioning about their character. This was Authentic as it is a similar process that a historical writer might go through. Students had Voice and Choice, as they chose their photo, and had complete autonomy over their characters narrative, as long as it was backed by research. When we introduced the PBL we laid out over 50 photos for a 20 student class and asked them to browse the photos and find one that spoke to them. There were many opportunities for Critique and Revision as the students met with both English and Social Studies teachers, and each other for feedback.  There was a Public Product at the end, as we had a showcase, in which students would display their book excerpt, research, and an artifact from the time period (which they created) to an audience of classmates, parents, and other teachers, who would act as investors and decide if they would invest so they could write the remainder of their book. And when the PBL was complete, we had built in Reflection so that students could assess what they learned and how they would approach things differently the next time.

Design Thinking Tiles (Stanford University) – Images by ISC

Design Thinking

The article Design Thinking in Education does a good job of providing a brief overview of the Design Thinking Process. One sentence that sums things up quite nicely is “Design Thinking can be flexibly implemented; serving equally well as a framework for a course design or a roadmap for an activity or group project”. There is also a nicely laid out infographic, which explains things succinctly for those who are diving into DT for the first time.  If you are looking for some additional resources on Design Thinking I suggest David Lee’s Website on Design Thinking. It is well laid out, and David has and is doing some great work with Design Thinking. A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had had the opportunity last year to travel to the Stanford dschool and participate in their 3 day deep dive course on Design Thinking. This was an excellent opportunity to learn concepts on Design Thinking and bring them back to ISC. 

Adam sporting his wearable art from our ISC Rapid Prototyping lesson

Design Thinking in Action!

When we returned to ISC we were excited to share our learning about DT with the rest of the school. One of our professional learning structures is Professional Learning Mornings, every Monday, from 8am-9am, with students arriving an hour late at 9am. We attended the training at Stanford in August, and when we returned, were given 8 PLM sessions with staff who were interested in learning about DT. The structure of our PLMs is to give people choice, so DT was one choice of many, but in the end we had over 40 people sign up for the 8 week session.  With so many people signing up, we decided to split our session into two groups, as four of us had been trained, so we could split the group easily. Our very first session was a rapid prototyping session in which participants had to partner up and create wearable art for their partner. This is a fun and friendly way to expose participants to all of the stages of the DT process. You can find our slidedeck HERE. After this first session, we took the next 6 and took a deep dive into each phase of the process, and ended up with a wrap up session. This has allowed the DT mindset to slowly permeate around campus. Additionally, we opened our Design and Innovation Lab this year for MS students and grade 9s, and all of the work is driven through the DT process. One further benefit to having non-teaching staff participate in PLMs is that we have seen parts of the DT process used in our Admissions, Marketing, and Finance departments. For example our Marketing department went through their own rapid prototyping exercise to generate ideas for campaigns to engage parents.

Photo by James L.W on Unsplash

Final Thoughts on Deep Learning

Over the past several weeks, we have been making our way through Fullan and Langworthy’s work: A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning, and having great conversation around what really constitutes deep learning. We know that deep learning takes place when students have voice and choice in their learning, the learning contains success criteria, that continual feedback is part of learning, that teachers partner with students to build efficacy and grit, and that students have opportunities to construct new knowledge.

When we look at PBL and DT, they are both prime examples of learning frameworks that provide an opportunity for deep learning to take place. In the case of PBL, students are given a problem or question which leads to their autonomy in solving the issue. Success criteria are provided at the beginning of the project, and feedback is provided throughout the process to guide the learning, and help students with sustained inquiry.  As this feedback is provided, students are also given the opportunity to build confidence and construct their own learning through an authentic task. In the case of DT the students may be given the problem, but in some cases they may have to define what the problem truly is, as this is part of the process. Success criteria are often defined through the empathize phase of the process as students realize what their end user requires and work to design to meet their end users needs. Feedback can be provided on multiple levels in the DT process, whether from the end user, peers, or the teacher. This feedback is provided continually. Lastly, students have the opportunity to build new knowledge as their prototypes are designed to meet the end users unique needs, and they are given the opportunity to reflect on the process as a whole in the end.

I am interested to hear what others’ experiences have been with Project Based Learning, or Design Thinking, and their impacts on Deep Learning.

3 thoughts on “Deep Learning

  1. Hey Ryan-
    This post was right up my alley and fits so nicely with things that I’m working on with a couple of grade levels at the moment. Thanks for sharing so many great resources, I can’t wait to explore these in more depth as I start co-planning with some of my teams. I love the momentum that Design Thinking has gained in recent years and have joined a few workshops recently that have opened up a floodgate of ideas. A couple of resources that have come in handy lately for me are David Lee’s book, Design Thinking in the Classroom ( and IDEO ( If you haven’t already checked those out, you definitely should.
    Your example of reworking the WWII unit and making it transdisciplinary and more project-based was really inspiring. I’ve been brainstorming ways to bring this into lower elementary grades, but it seems a bit more challenging because I’m most comfortable in upper grades. Any advice for adapting PBL and DT to meet younger students’ needs and interests? Thanks again for all of your powerful sharing, I look forward to seeing more of your work here and on Twitter!


  2. Hi Reyna! I am a huge fan of David Lee, and had the pleasure of working with him at KIS, in Seoul, South Korea. My wife and are are actually in his book. He worked with her grade 3 class as they designed transdisciplinary units that incorporated Design Thinking. And I worked with his Design Thinking Club students as they helped get my desk organized! I have some ideas for making elementary classes more transdisciplinary, I will reach out over Twitter!


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