Pebble in the Pond: Thoughts on PBL and causing ripples

One of the things we strive for in our MPX work are the effects it has on our larger educational landscape – both on campus and off. Somewhere in the last couple of years we adopted the language “pebble in the pond” to both encourage us to think both small and large about our work and the effect it has as it spreads out through the people we touch, the students we work with, and the artifacts that we share. For example, at the Schools of the Future conference (, our MPX led a session Titled “The Devil is in the Details” which was designed for teachers to both learn about and to start applying some of the simple but powerful ideas we use to bring our project-based work to a higher level. Specifically, in the workshop, we had teachers both look at examples of, and then try and develop a means to increase their active exploration in their work, as well as making it more authentic – both in terms of the work they do, and how they share this with their larger community. This terminology comes from the work from 20 years ago by Steinberg on the 6 A’s of project-based learning ( – one of the many excellent frameworks we use to help us strengthen our work. Our session had a standing room only crowd of at least 80 teachers and the feedback was really powerful. It is clear teachers appreciate and desire more contact, conversation and understanding about how to move towards this deeper learning work. (See more about Deeper Learning here

The teachers at our "Devil is in the Details" Schools of the Future presentation.

The teachers at our “Devil is in the Details” Schools of the Future presentation.

What is interesting about the phrase “pebble in the pond” is that it didn’t initiate with our PBL work, but instead came from my doctoral work in educational technology, community building, and instructional design. One of the privileges I had over the time I was working towards my dissertation was to take a class with and get to know Dr. David Merrill, Professor Emeritus
Utah State University. His “First Principles of Instruction” is a thoughtful, deep, powerhouse work that goes very intricately into best practice instructional design principles for learning. One of the articles we read when we worked with him was “A Pebble in the Pond Model for Instructional Design” (

In that model, the critical components include making sure the learners know and understand the whole problem before launching into their learning, that components skills and knowledge need to be broken into a series of scenarios or events that help the deepen their understanding of the parts that will move them towards the whole problem. He also talks about phases of instruction that are very similar to the mantra “tell, show, do” which is the basis of most kinds of powerful learning, but the “do” often gets left out in traditional education.

Centered around the problem, what are the elements of effective instruction. Note that the PROBLEM is in the center!

Centered around the problem, what are the elements of effective instruction. Note that the PROBLEM is in the center!

Dr David Merrill's "Pebble in the Pond" Instructional Design model

Dr David Merrill’s “Pebble in the Pond” Instructional Design model

If one looks carefully at the pebble in the pond graphic from his paper that I’ve attached here, you can even see a considerable similarity to the design process that is become such an important conversation in education today (see IDEO
So where does this take us?

A few thoughts:
– Good design is good design. It isn’t enough to teach component skills. If we want learners to be able to utilize what we are teaching them, we need to put problems in their context, have them understand the whole, and build up the component skills they need in order to successfully utilize that information.
– This kind of pebble in the pond design work is highly compatible with deeper learning practices like PBL.
– As we design our work in our MPX program we should stay mindful of these core ideas since it is highly compatible with and a core set of ideas that we can all agree on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *