Using the Design Thinking Process to Write a Book

By AJ Juliani, 40 comments

I’m sharing out my process below for writing my new book, The PBL Playbook: A Guide to ACTUALLY Doing Project-Based Learning. I used design thinking as a framework to write the book (it’s not finished yet, more on that below) and specifically the LAUNCH Cycle.

Would love your feedback on the process in the comments!

Phase 1
L: Look, Listen and Learn

I never had the idea in mind for another education book. In fact, after Empower I personally wanted to take a break from writing books, and spend some more time in other forms of creating (podcasts, videos etc).

I love writing and making and trying to make sense of the situations I’m going through as a teacher, leader, father, coach etc. Part of it is the reflection, but another piece is in sharing what has worked and hasn’t (in my own life and in the work of others).

It was early summer when I was doing a workshop in Texas. A few of the teachers were talking about how they wanted to get started with Genius Hour but felt like it was a big jump. I talked to them about starting first with a design sprint or a smaller project-based unit.

Here’s what stuck out to me about their response: “I’d love to get started but I feel paralyzed by the choice involved from my end. What unit do I begin with? How long should it be? What does the process look like? How will I grade the kids work? Or do I only grade the process? What am I going to be doing while they are working on their project?”

These questions (which came in rapid fire) spoke to me because I had the same questions when I started my first PBL unit. Luckily, I had an amazing mentor teacher who could help walk me through these steps and support the risk. I realized not all of us have that crutch that I had to lean on.

The following week in New York, teachers shared some of the same questions, fears, and thoughts. I listened to them share what worked well, and what didn’t in their classes, and how it was different to do PBL with each group of students.

It was after this discussion that I started asking a lot of questions. Which kicked me (at this time unknowingly) into the second phase of design thinking and the LAUNCH Cycle.

Phase 2
A: Ask Tons of Questions

Some of the questions I began to ask about Project-Based Learning:

  • Who was doing PBL well? I had seen it in various forms all around the world and in my own school, but how did it look different in 1st grade versus 8th grade? How did it function in a Physics class vs AP US History vs Algebra 1 vs an English elective etc?
  • What were effective practices in planning PBL experiences?
  • How did different teachers manage the PBL process?
  • What were some effective ways to assess PBL?
  • How did the frameworks that I know and use (design thinking, inquiry cycle, Buck Institute Gold Standard) compare and contrast? What were the non-negotiables for a successful PBL experience?
  • Was it better to plan PBL from scratch? Should you start with something already created that has worked in other classrooms?
  • Where are the areas to modify and accommodate throughout the PBL process?
  • What are some of the pitfalls shared across the board?
  • What resources are already available for teachers that share these best practices (and next practices) for Project-Based Learning?

This questioning/researching phase led me to talk to a number of people who are doing a lot of work in PBL including Ross Cooper, Erin Murphy, Katie Martin to name a few. I looked at research connected to PBL success and failure, read through books and journal articles, viewed a number of longer pieces around PBL, and talked to folks in many different grade levels with varying experiences.

Phase 3
U: Understand the Process and/or Problem

After asking a ton of questions and listening/learning to all things PBL, I had an eye-opening conversation with our STEAM Instructional Coach, Ignacio Jayo.

Ignacio, wise as always, put it this way:

Most teachers want a blueprint, or a playbook. They don’t need the exact lesson plan, but an idea, how it was executed, what worked well, and where common pitfalls are. Most of us want to learn from each other, and tweak as need be.

This word, playbook, stuck with me.

What if a book was less about the WHY and more about the HOW? What if a book about project-based learning shared real projects, happening in real classrooms, with real kids right now?

The problem seemed to be more about HOW to do PBL effectively, instead of WHY we should do it in the first place. Most of the teachers we talked to wanted to do more authentic work with students in their classroom, but they were wondering where to start.

Phase 4
N: Navigate Ideas

I had already begun to think about what this might look like. But, my main problem in navigating ideas was that I had to many! Here I had to go back to my initial phase of empathy. Who was I creating for? What would they need?

I started off by writing a blog series on PBL, and the actual “how-to” pieces that I knew I needed when first starting out.

Then I sent an email to my community of teachers and school leaders who have subscribed to this blog. I asked them for some help. I wanted to include real stories of PBL happening right now, and who better to ask than a community of educators that are busy doing the work (and aren’t afraid to share their wins and fails along the way).

The response was overwhelming! Over 80 teachers went into depth sharing their PBL journey. I took 40 of these stories and reached out to the teachers/leaders asking if we could use their work in an upcoming book about PBL. They were ecstatic and I began the process of putting together a book that would encompass ‘how-to do PBL’ without being overly prescriptive.

The writing process boiled down to about half of the book being written from my perspective, and another half of the book is stories told from teachers across the world in all types of K-12 classrooms.

This phase ultimately led to the creation of my upcoming book, The PBL Playbook: A Guide to ACTUALLY Doing Project-Based Learning.

Phase 5
Create A Prototype

Writing this book has been a challenge for a couple of reasons:

  1. I want to make sure it actually serves the audience I’m writing for.
  2. I want to make sure I’m accurately depicting the stories of PBL shared from the teachers who took the risk of putting their story out to the world.
  3. I’m not the best writer, I often take shortcuts and have to correct myself. For this project, I wanted to take time to make it right.
  4. It was frustrating to debate whether or not it was too prescriptive or, not practical enough. Finding this balance was tough!
  5. I had John Spencer writing with me on LAUNCH and Empower, and loved the back and forth we had during each book writing project. This felt a bit lonely throughout (even though I was collaborating), and also felt nervous because the buck ultimately stopped with me (and only me).

I could go on with why I felt nervous and anxious during the writing process, but I’ll leave it at this: The more I wrote the book, the more excited I got about it. I believe that is a good thing, even though I’m still a nervous wreck!

There are other pieces of the book that took some time to navigate when creating the initial draft.

First, should I share all of the stories from teachers at the end of chapters? Should I embed them in each chapter? Should I have specific chapters dedicated to  K-2 PBL, 3-5 PBL, Middle School PBL, subject-specific PBL?

In the end, after talking to many different people, I decided to devote the entire middle part of the book to thematic chapters about PBL, featuring the real stories from teachers. I’m also putting an index in the back of the book where you can quickly look and search for PBL experiences that are in your grade level or subject area.

Second, is what should I do about publishing this book? I had previously published with Routledge, Corwin, DBC, IMPress. I had good (and different) experiences with each publisher.

Yet, there was something I wanted to do with this book that made it different. During the navigation ideas phase, I wondered what it would be like to give the book away for FREE to teachers and leaders all over. Now, folks would still have to pay for shipping, but with printing costs as low as they are, I wondered how this was possible.

I had a number of really bad experiences of sending books out to teachers free. The organization and fulfillment of this process were tough for all involved.

I reached out to a few authors who had done this and found what I was missing: A process for getting the correct shipping information, payment for the shipping, and a drop-shipping company that would fulfill all the orders without a hiccup!

In order to do this, I would have to self-publish. I’m excited to say that is the decision I’ve gone with on this book, and I’m hoping to give away the first 5,000 copies free (just pay shipping) when it is released.

Self-publishing brought a whole next level of prototyping issues to solve including editing, formatting, etc. I’m still navigating a few of these, but the prototyping is almost complete.

Phase 6
H: Highlight, Improve, and Fix

My manuscript is finished, and I’m sending it to be edited and formatted. But, throughout the process, I have been getting feedback from many different people on what is working well, what is not working, what I can improve, and how I can fix some of the issues.

I have to come to grips that the book is not going to work for everyone. No creative project helps everyone. I know who I’m creating this for, and my hopes is that it works to give them the steps and confidence to jump into Project-Based Learning.

With that reality, I want to make sure it reaches as many people as possible. If you spend the time and energy creating something for an authentic audience, you also have to spend the time and energy to get your work in front of them.

This is not easy with the flood of information, materials, and resources we have in front of us at all times in today’s society.

The final step here will be to send out the final manuscript to a large group of people to get some last minute feedback. I won’t be able to act on all of the feedback, but if trends emerge of something I’m missing, or something that should be added, or something that is not clear—I’ll still have a chance to do right by the project.

Phase 7
L: Launch It to the World

Look for phase seven to happen sometime in May. I’m not sure yet when it will happen, but if you follow my blog, or are on my email list (sign-up is below) you’ll be the first to know.

This last phase is by far the scariest part of the creative process. For years and years, I had creative ideas and projects that I worked on without ever sharing them. In only the past couple of years have I taken this leap, and man it is scary. You have people that are critics of the work, that come at you personally, that bash ideas and all kinds of things.

That is part of the process.

You also have people who are helped by your art, who are inspired by your creation, who wish to take action after delving into your work.

This makes it worth it.

But, finally, there is an intrinsic piece to all of this. The part that I kept couped up for far too long. We all have something to share with the world, and honestly, there is no perfect time. So, get out there and share it and see what resonates and what doesn’t resonate. It’s only through the act of launching that our creation can truly bring us back to that first phase where we look, listen, and learn—and start the whole process over again.

Would love your thoughts below in the comments, and even though I’m a bit nervous and scared, I can’t wait to share The PBL Playbook with all of you!

Thanks for reading, and thanks for all your support!

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