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Collaborative learning

How to use real problems to spark real engagement

By Lavonne Boutcher
on February 2, 2016

What better way to link the classroom to real life than by giving students problems that actually need fixing? With problem-based learning, students start with a question worth probing and end with a solution that can often provide tangible results. By putting students in the “driver’s seat” of their own learning, education becomes “more relevant and purposeful,” says problem-based learning author and advocate Suzie Boss in her book, Real-World Projects: How do I design relevant and engaging learning experiences?

Problem-based learning for students

Here are three tips to help your students get the most from their problem-based learning experience:

1. Keep the focus close to home

Students are more likely to care about issues that matter to their own lives, especially if they can visualize how the results can improve their schools or communities. So get them thinking about the problems they see around them and some possible solutions.

In an Education World blog article, Aimee Hosier offers a few questions to get the brainstorming process started: 

  • How can we limit food waste in the school cafeteria?
  • How could we improve access to healthy food in our community?
  • How could we improve school attendance?
  • What could we do to limit the spread of colds and the flu among students?

Hosier also suggests tapping into other educators or community leaders for ideas your students might want to explore.

2. Encourage students to think like detectives

We all know you can’t solve a problem without asking questions – lots of them. So when students find that one compelling problem they want to solve, their detective work has just begun. Questions need to keep coming at every stage of their exploration.

John Larmer with the Buck Institute for Education offers some guidelines to help students become effective problem solvers:

  1. Choose an open-ended, “messy” problem that has more than one solution. The driving question should have no right answer and raise a lot of other questions.
  2. Define the problem. They need to ask, “What exactly are we trying to solve?” The more focused they are about this, the more tangible their solutions will be.
  3. Generate a knowledge inventory. Asking questions like: “What do we know? What do we need to know? How will we find out?” will help them stay on track during the research phase.
  4. Explore possible solutions. This is where they apply their findings by asking, “How can we use what we’ve learned to find the best solution?”
  5. Share what they learned and their proposed solution. This wrap up could be a letter, report or presentation that demonstrates their problem-solving abilities and answers one final question, “Here’s our solution, now what?”

3. Make it matter (to them and to others)

Through problem solving in the classroom, it’s actually possible for students to change the world (at least their small piece of it). 

From elementary school to high school, students have used problem-based learning projects to make a real difference in their communities. Several of these projects are outlined in the book, Yes, but…if they like it, they’ll learn it, which offers some practical ideas to help teachers connect literacy learning to the real world.

The Bed Project is a great example of problem-based learning in action. A group of second-graders took on a problem that struck very close to home. A fellow student had no bed to sleep in, so they set out to find her one.

The students came up with an action plan and within a month the girl not only had a bed, she also had bedding, stuffed animals and books to go along with it. Throughout the process, students met a wide range of literacy objectives as they wrote permission letters, organized activities and presented their solutions. They were able to see the direct relationship between the literacy skills they were learning and the tangible results that can come from using those skills effectively.

Students are also using technology to tackle real-world problems. Tools like Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are helping students make valuable contributions to their communities. A GIS is a computer program that captures, stores and displays data related to positions on Earth’s surface. One high school class used the technology to map potential emergency landing locations in the community, another used it to analyze rainfall and climate pattern data to predict flood risks near local schools.

Other solutions are now available to make student collaboration on projects easier and more effective. At Loyalsock Township School District in Pennsylvania, a Nureva™ Span™ system is enabling students to plan projects and make connections.

What are some of the real-world problems that have engaged your students?


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Topics: PBL

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