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A summary of unleashing problem solvers, students at the center of the learning

October 12, 2017

This most recent issue of Educational Leadership, a publication of ASCD, contains a series of articles under the title, Unleashing Problem Solvers.  The basic premise of many of the articles is that school is more interesting for students when their interests and learning profiles are integrated into program design and a teacher’s pedagogy aligns to the diverse learners in the classroom.  The challenge for the teacher is to adapt his or her teaching style to students’ needs.  Of course, this does call upon teachers to collect empathy data so they can identify what those needs, readiness, learning profile and interests are before the design is complete.

Here are some of my takeaways from a set of interesting articles (you may only see the abstract unless you are an ASCD member):

Middle Schoolers Go Global

The Global Challenge program at a middle school featured in the article uses the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals to present problems that students choose to solve as part of their weeklong interdisciplinary project.  The beauty of this program is that it allows students to “follow their passion” and engage in learning that relies on their initiative and a high degree of agency.  Over a period of 8 years, they have found that (on page 17):

  1. students can be motivated to learn without grades
  2. students’ freedom needs to be coupled with clearly identified outcomes and expectations
  3. transfer tasks, in the spirit of Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design, provide evidence of students’ deeper understanding
  4. rubrics to guide the learning need to focus on impact of the project, not just compliance to expectations
  5. assessment can drive improved instruction

They point out that:

it makes sense of a contemporary education to prepare students to transfer their learning to confront unpredictable challenges and opportunities.

The world our students will enter is more complex and unpredictable than in years past.  Therefore, it is our job as educators to not deliver an overly scripted and predictable curricula that asks them to merely plug-and-play.  Our job is to design a learning experience that expects them to think outside the box, using their creative talents and problem-solving skills to wrestle with complex and challenging problems.

Inviting Uncertainty Into the Classroom

Ronald Beghetto makes a compelling argument for introducing uncertainty into our curricular design process.  He writes:

We go to great lengths to clearly define the problems out students will solve, how they should solve them, and desired outcomes.

He points out that benefits can be derived from scripted learning; however, it doesn’t prepare students grapple with uncertainty, which they will find in most ‘real-life’ learning situations in the workplace.  He suggests five strategies that teachers can use to embrace uncertainty and integrate it into lesson design.

  1. View uncertainty as an opportunity
  2. Try lesson unplanning, a process by which teachers trade out predictable elements in a lesson with unpredictable elements that require students to think for themselves.
  3. Assign complex challenges to be solved as part of a lesson
  4. Explore the backstory of famous solutions
  5. Launch never-ending projects

Beghettto explains that:

If we want to prepare students to respond productively to uncertainty, we need to have them tackle a full range of challenges, including those addressing ill-defined problems and big issues.

I find the idea of “unplanning the lesson” to be quite interesting.  The challenge for most of us would be to embrace the uncertainty that would come with unpacking a lesson to make room for uncertainty, exploration, and problem-finding.  It would be a different type of learning experience for students, but one that might bring with it more engagement.

From Answer Getters to Problem Solvers

I fell in love with this instructional strategy, Three-Acts of a Mathematical Story,  as I was reading the article.  The strategy was first introduced by Dan Meyer in his blog post by the same name.  The author of the article, Mike Flynn, explores the strategy using an example from his work at a K-8 school in Massachusetts.  In the three-act strategy, the teacher designs a lesson using the following structure:

  • Act 1: introduce the topic by heightening the students’ curiosity about the problem before them (video, image, story, etc.)
  • Act 2: design a focal question that drives the learning.  It should be sufficiently open-ended such that students have the space to work creatively on the problem.  The question should draw students into a problem finding and solving space.  In Act 2, students are engaged in researching and assembling the resources they need to solve the problem.
  • Act 3: a time and space for students to engage in conversations about their Act 2 work.  In this space, they discuss and revise their work.

Flynn provides links and resources in his article for teachers who are interested in designing a Three-Act lesson.  While his example ties to the teaching of math, I wonder how teachers from other disciplines might incorporate the strategy into their toolbox.

Thinking Inside the Box

In this article, the author, John Spencer, explains how he used the design thinking process to help students collaborate on solving a challenging problem their school faced.  He writes:

Instead of thinking outside the box, innovation often involves thinking differently about the box.

I found myself fascinated by this rather simple way of thinking about innovation.  Learn to think differently about the thing you think you know.  He references an article by Stephen Johnson where he uses the phrase, the “adjacent possible.”  The adjacent possible is defined as: “a kind of shadow future, hovering on. the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”  In design thinking, we talk about the importance of iterating a prototype to meet the needs of our user.  Tinkering around the edges to improve an idea can result in innovation.

The other idea I enjoyed reading about in this article is the value of helping students develop their divergent thinking ability.  Traditional, sequential curricula that is ladened with content acquisition, allows little space for students to think in non-linear ways.  We tend to not let them explore.   How might we insert into our lessons more opportunities that require divergent thinking.  For example, integrating brainstorming protocols, chalk talks, and other strategies that encourage students to think creatively.

A final point that Spencer makes is to integrate more opportunities for students to work with their mistakes, revise their work, and reflect on their learning.

Hopefully, these brief summaries stimulate your curiosity enough to dig a little deeper into one or all of them.   The EL edition contains a series of other articles all centered around the question of how we help students become problem finders, problem solvers, and creative thinkers.

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