We’ve all been there. You sit down to create a PBL unit. You’re inspired. You have big plans. You’re ready to do this. Then you just stare at the computer screen. Where to start? Even if you’re lucky enough to plan with a team, creating a PBL unit often starts with a case of writer’s block. The team needs a push to get the ideas flowing. Here are four quick steps to use design thinking to create a PBL unit.
These four quick steps work well if you have a general topic in mind (i.e. standard, unit). It also works well if you do not have a topic and simply want a project that connects to students’ lives. If this is the case you will concentrate more on what is important or relevant to them, than what is important or relevant to the topic in mind.
Step 1: Once you arrive on a general topic, give yourself or the team 3-5 minutes to brainstorm one of the top two boxes (characters or setting). When you finish, give yourself or the team another 3-5 minutes to brainstorm the remaining top level box. Capture each idea on a post-it or sticky note and organize by appropriate box.
Step 2: Using the characters and settings from the top boxes concentrate on problems that may be interesting and engaging. This is the box on the lower left. Spend a solid five minutes brainstorming problems that can be solved in this setting, or with these characters. Capture each idea on a post-it or sticky note and organize in the “potential problems” box.
Step 3: In the last box, write down exciting, engaging, and inspiring ideas related to content emerging from the first boxes. These ideas should be deep and complicated. They often pose difficult questions that do not have a right answer and can even be controversial in nature. Spend a solid five minutes brainstorming big ideas. Capture each idea on a post-it or sticky note and organize in the “big ideas” box.
Step 4: Take a step back and examine the notes for each section. I find that completing the first three boxes helps give rise to very inspiring big ideas. These big ideas, along with information from the other boxes, make formulating a driving or essential question much easier. Once you create the driving or essential question you have the start of your PBL unit.
Here is an example brainstorm around the general topic: student lunch improvement
Start first with a place or setting:
The school cafeteria
Potential problems with this setting and characters:
Students organized in cliques
Food that is unhealthy
Food tastes bad
A lot of bullying goes on at lunchtime
Too little supervision
Too much supervision
Ugly cafeteria design
Big ideas to wrestle with:
Social interactions amongst kids
Tradeoffs in mass food preparation
Now time to make an essential question: (Here is my thought, there could obviously be a lot more):
How can we design a school cafeteria for optimal student experience?
One final tip: If you want to encourage student voice and choice, this is something students can do as a class or small group. Yes, they can actually develop the projects themselves.
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