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Posts tagged project-based learning

In Search of the Perfect Problem

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At IDE Corp., our “why” for the professional development services and consulting we provide is to assist schools in positioning students to change the world. To build student efficacy and leadership, schools must move beyond a compliance model to an engagement → empowerment → efficacy model of instruction. The Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom model drives learning through student engagement in solving authentic, open-ended problems. Let me give you an example from 8th grade science teacher, Jennifer Kaylor of Centennial Middle School, one of our STEM LATIC schools in Pasco County Florida:


When a rocket launches into outer space, it consumes significant quantities of fuel to get outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. Once up in space, it uses little fuel, except that it’s already expended so much! Watch this video to see! Rocket fuel is made from hydrogen and oxygen; it turns out we can mine that from asteroids. The company Planetary Resources is working to do just that. Imagine if you could launch from Earth and then land on the moon to refuel with hydrogen and oxygen mined from asteroids. The possibilities for space travel and living are limitless! The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is interested in this topic as well.


Jen has rocks from asteroids that students will test to identify chemical elements. They will explore this topic of space travel from a chemistry perspective and write proposals regarding which asteroids might be worthy of a visit from Planetary Resources. They can then send their proposals to the company.


I don’t know about you but if I were in that class, I’d be very motivated to use my growing knowledge of chemistry to contribute to the solution to providing rocket fuel in outer space, especially if I could send my proposal to a real company!


What makes a perfect problem, from kindergarten through college?


Open-Ended: When students are given a problem to solve, they are motivated to tackle the challenge. They get to develop and promote their own unique ideas, grappling with content. While closed-ended projects (such as making a dinosaur museum exhibition) can be fun, open-ended problems, such as designing a habitat to house a cloned dinosaur, have that additional “drive” factor by creating a “felt need” to learn.


Audience: Once students develop their solution, who are they going to tell? If the audience extends beyond the teacher or classmates, students will be more motivated to focus on the quality of their solution and presentation of that solution. It becomes a matter of personal pride.


Real-World: The extent to which the problem solution can change the world is also a motivating factor. Problems can be focused on the student, school, community, state, nation, world, and universe. All are important and should be addressed across the year. You’ll find that when students find they are making a difference, they rise to the occasion. Real-world problems lend themselves to using a design process for solution finding, building critical academic and executive function skills.


Standards-Focused: Given that schools operate within a system that expects mastery of certain content by certain grade levels, and sometimes even times of the school year, it is important to ensure that the problem is well-focused on that content. While other content will be reinforced and foreshadowed, key curricular content must be at the core of the problem.


In my second book, It’s Not What You Teach But How, I propose that we need students to become problem-finders, innovators, and entrepreneurs. As teachers grow more comfortable with their Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classrooms, they can move toward having students identify the problems they want to solve, rather than constraining them with teacher-created problems.

To get started on your own problem-finding, look in your own classroom or school, consider issues of your community, look at the world around you. Read the news! Check out great organization’s websites, like the United Nations, NASA, World Water Organization, World Health Organization, the World Economic Forum, CARE, and more.

Create great problems to build efficacious leaders and change the world!


The Many Faces of Problem-Based Learning

At its core, problem-based learning is an approach that offers students an authentic, open-ended, complex problem to solve, which requires applying curricular content. While there are many definitions of project- and problem-based learning, let me define them for the purpose of this blogpost.

A “project” does not necessarily have to be open-ended; there is often one correct answer based on content:  for example, create a salt-and-flour map of the state; create a dinosaur museum; develop a timeline to detail the cause-and-effect relationships that led to the civil war. In each case, the content is set, available, “Googleable” if you will; and the student is focused on the best way to present it. The only open-ended aspect is how to present the known data. A “problem,” on the other hand, must be open-ended, having no one correct contentScreen Shot 2016-03-27 at 5.14.10 PM answer. Students must grapple with the content, utilizing higher-order thinking skills to formulate a response: for example, determine where your state should build the next airport; develop a habitat at your school to house a cloned dinosaur; identify a hot spot in the world that could erupt into a civil war and offer a plan to avoid it, based on your study of the civil war addressed by your curriculum. I view problem-based learning as a subset of project-based learning.

Given that definition, problem-based learning can be used in at least three ways to empower students and enrich the learning process:

  1. Use it to launch a unit of study. For example, to open a geometry unit covering the Pythagorean Theorem, present the concept that companies use geometry to determine the strength of their offerings and asks students to select an organization and determine how strong their social network is, offering mathematically-defended recommendations for greater strength. (Sample unit) A rubric would drive instruction by offering steps to achieving success to guide instruction and allow students to take responsibility for their own learning.
  2. Use it as a transfer task. For example, at the end of units on the parts of a story (character, setting, and plot) and letter writing, ask students to write a letter to a favorite author convincing that person to write the next book about their city or town. (Sample unit) A rubric would offer assessment criteria in order to evaluate student’s content mastery.
  3. Use it as a curriculum document. For example, if sixth grade social studies includes addressing ancient curriculum rubric screenshotcivilizations, use a problem-based task to define the curriculum standards. (Sample unit)
    In this case, the rubric should detail the standards to be addressed, creating a “scope” for the curriculum. A series of problem-based tasks would now represent the curriculum. Teachers could use the units as is or suggest alternate problems for addressing the same content.

Using problem-based learning, you can engage students in grappling with content, create a venue for differentiation, foster executive function, and build the kinds of skills students need to succeed in the creative economy. For more information, view my video on The Case for Problem-Based Learning; join our Virtual Learning Community online course on problem-based learning, or subscribe to the IDEportal for hundreds of sample problem-based unit.