Reimagining Education: 4 steps for school leaders to leverage project-based learning and design thinking

Before the pandemic hit, I was focusing on something exciting: Getting ready to open a new 6-12 school in my district, built around project-based learning and design thinking. I want to reimagine school so students play a larger role in mapping their own learning paths – and my goal is for every student to discover and experience a passion before they graduate. 

I know these goals sound lofty right now, when we sometimes feel like we’re doing all we can just to get by, and it’s true that I hadn’t factored a pandemic into my preparations for the new school. But with all the challenges we’re facing, I believe we need to keep our visioning conversations going. We need to keep thinking and talking about what drew us to become school leaders. We need to stay connected to what drives us, because that’s what will see us through the moments that feel hardest. 

And even as we respond to the challenges of the moment, my school community is making progress toward our vision, giving our middle school students the experiences that will help them succeed in a new PBL environment.

I want to share the four steps we’re taking now to empower students with project-based learning and design thinking:

1. We’ve created a master schedule that follows a “wheel model,” giving students more opportunities for discovery. 

Heading into virtual learning, one of my biggest pushes with my staff was to say: “Let’s make this simple for kids. Let’s make it simple for you all.” We had a nine-period bell schedule, in which students juggled up to seven different classes over two days, so we took a step back to rethink that. We looked at our elective offerings and asked, “How well can these classes actually run in a virtual or hybrid setting?”

In the 11th hour, we shifted to a quarter block schedule running on a “wheel model.” Each semester, students take math, language arts and science or social studies. Each quarter, they rotate through an elective: performing arts, visual arts, PE and a new class called “design thinking,” which I’ll describe below. (In eighth grade, students have a little more choice, with some students taking a full semester of Spanish or performing arts.)

While this move was born out of the necessity of the pandemic, the wheel model supports our longer-term goals. A high school driven by student choice and passions will work best if we start laying the groundwork in middle school. The wheel model is about making sure students explore multiple areas of study, instead of just signing up for PE every semester, like I did as a kid. It will help make sure they’re not closing a door on themselves before they even open it, and it will give them a well of experience to draw on when it comes time for them to design their own learning path.

2. We’re giving students a “design thinking” experience.

Creating our wheel model meant paring down our elective offerings, removing those that we felt wouldn’t run as well virtually. Those electives were turned into our new “design thinking” class. 

In this year’s design thinking course, teachers began with a question that addressed the challenges of the moment head-on, asking students how to best design their learning space. Students suddenly had to manage their whole lives at home, and we wanted to help them separate work from play, from eating and from rest. Even though they might need to do all of their activities in one room, we encouraged them to ask questions like: “Is there a corner that you can designate as your workspace? If you have to share a table with three other siblings, can we help you get a headset? If you only have one space in your home for all your activities, can you create separation in the way you allocate chunks of time?”

3. We’re leveraging teacher leadership to move toward Project-Based Learning.

Even in normal circumstances, trying to get an entire staff on board with PBL would be a challenge, so I’m trying to focus on building up the existing energy. 

That includes identifying teachers who have already embraced PBL and giving them leadership roles, encouraging them to share flipped learning models or student engagement strategies with peers. For example, our art teacher has experience leading students through a process of solving a need they identified – animal insecurity – by selling artwork to fundraise and planning an animal adoption event. Our science department put together a project about infectious disease last spring, and our social studies department has reformatted projects around what it means to live through a historic moment. 

Whenever somebody has an idea for a project, I encourage them to run with it. When a teacher is curious about learning more about PBL, I’ll try to connect them with PD and resources that can help them explore and support their ideas (some of these resources are linked at the end of this post). 

Some teachers have already spent years thinking about PBL, and a group even visited California’s High Tech High a couple years ago, bringing back inspiration from their project-based model and student work. Other teachers are excited about starting PBL work, but they’re overwhelmed right now. I’m trying to help them see that it’s OK to create just new, small opportunities for student choice and to let go of some of the curriculum. Because PBL often involves blended learning and self-paced, independent work, many of the resources for hybrid teaching align with a PBL model. I’m trying to make those connections, encouraging teachers to see that the time they’re investing in learning new practices now will pay off when we move into our new school. 

4. We’re staying patient and focused on our vision – even in the pandemic.

This year, we often feel like we’re in survival mode. But I’m trying to remember: this period won’t last forever. While I might be spending a lot of time reading health department emails and trying to problem-solve around the pandemic, it won’t always feel that way.

I didn’t envision a pandemic playing a role in shaping my work toward the new school, but in some ways, this has forced me to focus on the essentials. Being willing to dismantle and redesign the bell schedule. Developing design thinking skills for students. Fostering teachers’ excitement around doing something different.

And even now, our team is able to offer students an authentic opportunity to engage in their interests. We can prompt them to look around the world and ask, “How can I make this better? What could I do to improve this? How could I design something that would work?”


Design thinking and project-based learning are new to a lot of us, so I want to share some of what I’ve drawn on in my learning: