Design Thinking: PBL with Heart

To begin, it’s important to make sure we’re all on the same page. PBL is an acronym for project based learning, a learning experience that is centered on a problem that students work to solve. (It also stands for problem based learning and passion based learning. Oh, and Phi Beta Lambda, Philippine Basketball League, and Points behind Leader. Moving on...) The Buck Institute for Education ( outlines eight components of PBL:

1. Key Knowledge, Understanding, and Success Skills. This is where the learning standards are applied and students have to demonstrate competence.

2. Challenging Problem or Question. It’s a challenge for the teacher to come up with a problem that is authentic, tied to the curriculum, and interesting, but this is crucial to the process. Luckily, there are a lot of resources online (free!) to help you.

3. Sustained Inquiry. Students identify what they need to know, providing opportunities for reteaching content or deepening student understanding.

4. Authenticity. We all know the importance of authentic learning experiences for students to transfer their understanding to other contexts.

5. Student Voice & Choice. Do you want to your students to care about their work in your class? Give them choices! Easy peasy.

6. Reflection. I wrote a blog post about this recently - check it out! Allowing/Requiring time for reflection is important to deepening student understanding AND helping them identify their interests related to your content.

7. Critique & Revision. The PBL process is cyclical so that students can adjust their thinking along the way.

8. Public Product. Students share their learning, preferably with a “real” audience.

Design thinking is very similar to PBL in that it is a process of learning, not a curriculum. I’m sure there are many nuances that make it different, but I want to talk about one important distinction: EMPATHY.

Merriam Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objective explicit manner.”

To consider the idea of empathy, I want to talk about three really innovative people: Jennifer Hyman, Brian Chesky, and Joe Gebbia.

Jennifer Hyman is one of the founders of Rent the Runway, a website that allows everyday women to rent designer gowns that they normally could not afford. Hyman had ALL kinds of business experience with a whole lot of grit, so her success is not that surprising. But what she capitalized on, that took Rent the Runway to a whole new level, is the empathy she had for her customers. Through a lot of research and conversations with women, she realized that, while wearing a designer dress was fabulous, it was more about the experience than the dress. She saw women throw their shoulders back, make eye contact with strangers, and strut with confidence in themselves. Once she recognized that, she was able to elevate her business to the success it is today.

Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia are the founders of Airbnb, a platform that allows people to rent parts or all of their homes to strangers. Their story is fascinating (so you should google them),  but again I want to focus on how empathizing with their customers changed the direction of their business. Originally, Chesky and Gebbia thought of Airbnb as an option for people traveling for work conferences. They loved the idea of someone local sharing a bit of their city with a stranger and renters were responding really well to their experiences. However, it was when they listened to their customers and realized that there was a need for this type of experience beyond conference travel. Once they recognized this, they saw their business explode and evolve to locals offering experiences to travelers, in addition to places to stay overnight.

The point of these stories is to illustrate what can happen when we look beyond ourselves, our perceptions, and our needs. Great things happen when empathy is a priority.

When you make the decision to incorporate empathy into your lessons, time should be dedicated to understanding the term. You can dissect the definition above. Or have students work through William & Mary’s vocabulary web ( Similarly, the Frayer Model would also be helpful ( The important part of this step is for students to fully understand what the term means; they will understand its nuances as they work through the project, so there is no need to overdo it with character building activities (which is a topic for another blog post).

The diagram below displays the process of design thinking. The first thing you should notice is that the learning experience begins with empathy. The other part of this process to consider is that it’s cyclical. There is a linearity to it, in that we take our students through steps similar to PBL, but there is also time dedicated to returning to different stages. It’s important to note that you have to dedicate time/require students to revisit the process (and revise their thinking), especially at the beginning. If you teach students similar to mine, many just want to finish and move along.


In PBL-speak, the driving question is what propels the project. And it is hard to write one that is appealing and will carry students through all of the stages. Here are a few examples of driving questions from Andrew Miller’s Edutopia article (

Should we build a new highway in the proposed area?

How do we create a podcast to debunk myths and stereotypes of world religions?

How do I create a marketing plan for a local business?

How do I as a scientist design an experiment to debunk a common scientific myth?

Can you imagine leading your students through a project based learning experience beginning with one of these questions? What are the roles that empathy can play in this process?

As you work to develop lessons for this school year, my hope is that you stretch yourself to include a design learning experience for your students. It is an authentic way for students to encounter your learning standards, which creates buy-in and excitement. Plus, by incorporating empathy into the process, their understanding of the issues will be elevated, creating a community of mature and thoughtful problem solvers.


Laila SangurasComment