School: An Ideal Place for Problem-Based Learning

The learning landscape is changing at a faster pace that I can really keep up with.  The way we are learning is so brand new that it scares me.  It makes me uncomfortable.  This is where I live.  I live everyday realizing that I can’t and shouldn’t be doing the same things in the same way. My teaching is required to reflect this changing landscape.  I need to send my kids away with questions and curiosities that push them to learn more and learn what they need to learn.  Yet we are still up against a curriculum and outcomes and standards.

I miss my days in the PYP these last few years.  As I switch to a US curriculum this year I am reminded of how student driven and learning-centred inquiry learning really is where such awesome and true, authentic learning takes place.  My challenge this semester is to allow the inquiry model to drive what I do and to remember that when you keep students at the centre of what you are doing you can’t really go wrong.

Technology drives me everyday to figure out new and unimaginable ways of doing things. Do I get it right sometimes? Yeah, sometimes but not as much as I would like.  However, I realize that I am giving learners the opportunity to get messy and find what works for them.

As this week we are thinking about Problem-Based learning, I am reminded how much I love this stuff and how I want to incorporate more into my classroom.  I do fairly well at this in math I think. I give them real world problems to solve and I try to have my questions open-ended which lets kids figure out ways to solve.  Sometimes I give the answer and have the kids find the questions or I have groups solve a problem that matters to them.  There is always a way to make math more meaningful and I enjoy the challenge of doing this.  I thought about what I am doing right now and thought of a small problem based learning activity that would help me push along what we are doing already.  We are supposed to have the kids do a research project where they research an endangered animal and present it in the form of a powerpoint.  Along the SAMR model, I would almost consider it substitution.  I didn’t really like the idea and decided to be a bit deviant but still share my ideas with the team so as not to seem like I wasn’t interested in playing on the team.

So, I came up with this: Choose a Malaysian Endangered species from the Animal Kingdom that we have studied and solve the problem of its risk of extinction.  They had to do the normal research that was required by the standards but then they had to figure out a way that they would “fix” its endangerment.  I thought I would use technology to transform the way they communicated this.  Next week, we are doing to green screen films of them as scientists doing a report through a “news” channel sharing about the discovery of the animal and what the public can do to prevent it from becoming endangered.
They came up with ideas to stop deforestation, put up fencing around the various habitats, create campaigns to send out the message about what we are doing to these animals and other creative suggestions.  I think that on a minimalistic level this was a problem that they had to solve.  I would be interested in creating larger scale problem-based activities that really had them working through issues to work together to solve something.

Just today when we were participating in the Hour of Code, it was neat to hear the kids talking to each other of ways that they could overcome the problems in directing the computer to achieve the purpose of the game.  Whether it was how to move the angry birds closer to the pig or how to create a holiday card the kids were engaged in finding solutions to problems.  They were engaged, excited and eager to show their parents at home tonight.

I believe that schools are the ideal place for setting up these situations.  Why don’t we do more of it? I know that I am going to try….

How do you set up problem-based learning activities? What does it look like in your classroom? 

3 thoughts on “School: An Ideal Place for Problem-Based Learning

  • Thanks for your post Tim; you offer much to ponder. Your point about how educating the digizens of today as feeling overwhelming and messy is something I can certainly relate to and mirror on a daily basis. I guess what I have learned over the years, and I am happy to share this with my students, is that learning is a state of flux. It is not something to be mastered or perfected; it is about pursuing knowledge and excellence.

    The internet and its endless possibilities allows us to present our students with as many opportunities as possible to pursue their areas of passion. Educators know this as an absolute truism yet feel shackled by the curriculum we are meant to cover. Curriculum doesn’t have to make us feel that way; we just have to come at it through another door, as you stated, use an inquiry based approach to cover the curriculum and teach and reinforce the procedural knowledge that comes along with it.

    Your students are lucky to have a teacher that is passionately pursuing the best possible way to turn them on to learning.

    Are you teaching in Malaysia now? I teach at ISKL and was at the KLGafe conference as well. Our international community is indeed a small world.

  • I did the hour of code with my kids. I don’t know how much they learned to code, but I loved watching them learn together. They knew I was out of my depth (I was playing with them and getting frustrated) so they watched videos, turned to experts, and helped each other out. Watching them learn, and being excited about it on the day before vacation, reminded me how much *fun* learning should be. Thanks for sharing your thoughts…it’s messy and uncomfortable, but it’s worthwhile!

  • Hi Tim,
    Thought I’d chime in with my thoughts, albeit a bit late. I was interested in your school’s (or grade’s) adoption of Problem-Based Learning. Is it one unit a year or something you do quite often? I agree that the product required is substitution on the SAMR model but I really like your change to the presentation, which would push it up to Augmentation. However, I think the task itself has great merits and is so much better than a straight research project. It even moved me to go and look up the precise difference between Project- and Problem-Based Learning and think about my next Math unit.

    We are currently working on a PBL for a Grade 5 Math unit on decimals, fractions and percentages and would like to provide a real-life situation for them. A problem to solve sounds even better than the straight project we have been working on. Have you got any ideas for resources? It is such an important Number unit that striking a balance between explicit teaching where needed and the project we design is going to be tricky, especially with many different ability levels in the class. How do you manage this in your math classes and how old are your students?

    Look forward to catching up again sometime and I hope you’re enjoying KL!

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