Making Rigorous PBL by Design Doable

It is difficult to accept that the best learning road is slow and that doing poorly now is essential for better performance later.  It is so deeply counterintuitive that it fools the learners themselves both about their own progress and their teachers’ skills.”  

- David Epstein

As a teacher, I have always been enamored by the “light bulb” moments that occur in my class.  Those brief moments when students come to realize a new idea, a new skill, a new perspective of looking at a topic.  I’m right there to capture this change and witness the neural synapses; a change in their minds.

 Light bulb moments are best cultivated in a structured, routine, well-designed, and easily predictable environment.  The proverbial “light bulbs” turn on for kids often when they are in what David Epstein calls a “kind world”- a predictable environment.   Interestingly, deep learning, which is the ability for students to think critically about core principles and practices of a discipline and apply their learning across difficult situations, requires a much different environment and set of strategies for learning.  

Deep learning requires significant time for students to collaborate with others, seek help from peers, and evaluate and reflect on their performance.  Moreover, they engage in these processes while studying and solving real-world problems, analyzing different perspectives of a problem, and often managing changes in the problem situation and navigating their own student group dynamics.   Students face set-backs, frustrations, shifting hunches, and nuances that emerge.  This is anything but a kind world.  This is more like the wicked world- an unpredictable environment.  

Perhaps the best, more long-lasting, learning requires me to relinquish my urge for those dopamine fixes of immediate gratification for kids to understand something from the get-go and, in fact, embrace what Steven Johnson calls the “anti-light bulb moment”.   The  “anti-light bulb moments” provide students with the ability to move beyond rote tasks and be able to have the capacity for abstraction and transfer concepts across fields of study.  So, how do we create these types of moments?  We need to design desirable difficulties.  The name is a contradiction in terms because the difficulties present immediate tension points for teachers, students and parents. 

 Below I have laid out three tension points and suggested doable strategies to bring the wicked world into the classroom in a way that is safe and supportive.  


Tension Point 1:  Deep and transfer learning is slow and does not usually happen at the same time as initial teaching occurs.  This is challenging because we desire instantaneous learning.  

Deep and transfer learning are counterintuitive in that the learning often happens at a different time than the initial instruction.  Delays in learning are a necessary ingredient for deep and transfer learning.  This type of learning is the opposite of “before your eyes” progress; it is the anti-light bulb moment.

The mantra here is that progress should not happen too quickly.  If it does, we get what is called a knowledge mirage whereby students can recite what they just learned but that information soon evaporates when it matters most.  As such, long-run learning is most effective when learning is inefficient in the short run.  

Solution:  We need to design strategies that slow learning down.  

Example:  Use a protocol for students to process their thoughts with one another.  Protocols such as Think-Pair-Share and Discussion Mapping are helpful for enabling students to generate answers. 


Tension Point 2:  Transfer learning requires confusion and we don’t like difficulties that we can avoid. 

While learning complex material requires time, students need to be active in understanding core content by way of evaluating their own prior knowledge, evaluating different perspectives, and adding nuanced challenges to tasks.  One way to do this is to have teachers consider how they can add obstacles to their teaching repertoire to make learning more challenging, slower, and more frustrating in the short term, but better in the long run. 

Solution:  Infuse confusion as a part of the daily routine of student learning.  

Example:  Present students with changes to the situation they are studying.  This may include changing the type of task, the context they are studying, or the perspective they are analyzing.

In addition, offer structured protocols for students to process their frustration.  Two protocols that come to mind here include the charette protocol and the leadership dilemma.  


Tension Point 3:  We praise teachers for our lack of confusion and ease of completing tasks yet learning that lasts requires confusion and struggle with completing tasks 

Often we hear that inquiry methodologies such as problem and project-based learning will be immediately embraced by students.   The method is built on the idea that student engagement is driven by having students engage through real-world questions or scenarios, student ownership over making key decisions and seeing the connection between what they are learning to their own lives.  While students may be engaged this doesn’t mean that they are pleased with the activities.  Research has continually shown that students rank teachers who make work easier and clearer much higher than they do when teachers use more inquiry-based strategies. 

If an instructor tries a few different approaches to teaching some concept or material, she would likely conclude that the approach which leads to the most immediate and observable signs of student improvement is the best one. In fact, when teachers try to facilitate learning by making it as easy as possible, this may increase the immediately observable short-term performance, but it decreases the more important long-term retention. In short, we often seek to eliminate difficulties in learning to our own detriment.  When learning is difficult, people make more errors, and they infer from this that their method is ineffective.

The tension here is that teachers who excel at promoting contemporaneous student achievement on average harm the subsequent performance of their students in more advanced classes.  Yet, those who harm students later are rewarded by students today.  We need to bring students and parents into the conversation so they can take part in what we are after– long-lasting learning

Solution:  Incorporate easy-to-implement strategies for bringing students (and parents) on board with desirable difficulties.  

Example:  Send home a note to parents that states that there will be times when their children will be confused and frustrated from the day.  Share that these moments are important and that you will not be associated with any high-stakes grading to the work that they are struggling with.  “High challenge, low stakes”.


Below are a few additional strategies to consider when incorporating desirable difficulties into the classroom.

Tension 1

Tension 2

Tension 3

Use protocols that require students to reflect on their progress over time including

Before I thought…Now I think….and  Gap Analysis 

Use co-construction strategies to support students in generating the key outcomes of the unit or lesson they are learning. 

Keep wicked work at school by providing homework to students that they already know how to do and that has instructions parents can easily follow.  

Ensure you are teaching across a range of complexity (Blooms/DOK) and/or connect to prior or future concepts that connect with what you are teaching. 

Increase the use of field trips, short “walk and talks” around the school, visit new classrooms, go to the library, or explore the athletic spaces in the school.

Meet with students prior to a challenging experience and walk through a few exercises to handle potential frustration.  

Provide low-stakes quizzes and have students analyze them with each other and share their learning with the class.  

Provide workshops on testing strategies students may use rather than passive restudying 

Provide students with work samples that show a variety of fonts, handwritten and typed. 

Provide students an opportunity to share their experiences.  Here we want to hear how students persevered, changed course, and managed their emotions. 


Lastly, to learn more about desirable difficulties and how to incorporate them into your practice and a student’s experience, I would encourage you to consider engaging in Rigorous PBL by Design.   Rigorous PBL by Design is a structured inquiry methodology that requires students to solve real-world problems.  The methodology is aligned with contemporary and comprehensive research.   

One of the challenges of any inquiry-based methodology is breaking it down to bite-size doable habits that any teacher can engage in as they navigate their busy lives in the classroom which includes making desirable difficulties a consistent routine part of a student’s academic life.  In our upcoming book The Project Habit:  Making PBL Doable Kelley Miller and I attempt to make the work of Rigorous PBL by Design achievable for teachers which includes making desirable difficulties doable.   Below you will find a set of common and impactful PBL habits that can be applied by anyone.  Habit 9-11 focuses heavily on bringing in desirable difficulties.  

I would encourage you to take the following survey to identify your current level of implementation and areas of focus in the future. As soon as you complete the survey, you will get a copy of your results from Google Forms. After receiving your results, take a few minutes to identify practices you are already engaging in as well as areas for growth. In terms of areas of growth, you may want to try a new strategy, deepen a practice, change a practice, or develop a new approach to a habit. This would be a great place to build a habit that ensures students to engage in difficult problems in a way that is desirable and doable.

About the Author:

Michael McDowell, EdD, serves as the superintendent of the Ross School District in California. Dr. McDowell has authored bestselling books, presented keynotes and workshops, and provided practical tools and resources for thousands of teachers and leaders on almost every continent around the world. He is the author of Rigorous PBL by DesignThe Lead LearnerDeveloping Student ExpertiseTeaching for Transfer, and the forthcoming, The Busy Teacher



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