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October 1, 2017
Vol. 75
No. 2

EL Study Guide / Problems of Practice

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Instructional Strategies
The October 2017 issue of Educational Leadership focuses on problem-based learning—or approaches to instruction that give students time and space to grapple with and present solutions to complex challenges. Many of the contributors argue that giving students well-structured opportunities for this type of work can improve engagement and help students learn material and skills in more contextually meaningful ways.
Rich in pedagogical discussion and packed with lessons ideas, the issue raises a number of issues and questions for educators to explore in depth.

Why Problem Solving?

Many of the authors featured in this issue make the case (albeit in different ways) that a greater focus on problem-based learning is needed in U.S. schools. You may wish to examine these arguments and consider their relevance to your own practice and curriculum—and whether you agree with them or not.
A good place to start is with Ronald A. Beghetto's article on "Inviting Uncertainty into the Classroom." Beghetto believes that educators have a tendency to "overplan" student "learning experiences." This deprives students of opportunities to "engage with uncertainty"—a key aspect of dealing with complex challenges. "Students need to learn how to sit with the uncertainty of a thorny challenge, take time to explore the features of the task or situation, generate possible ways to address it, and evaluate the viability of those possibilities," Beghetto writes.
Other authors argue that such processes can deepen students' conceptual understanding of content and enhance their reasoning and critical thinking skills, thus better preparing them for careers. "Today's world requires problem solvers, not answer getters," writes math educator Mike Flynn.
For discussion or reflection: What's the difference between "problem solvers" and "answer getters"? Does your teaching or curriculum support one over the other? How could you invite more uncertainty into your lessons?

How Do You Make It Work?

One of the underlying themes of this issue is that integrating problem solving into instruction is not easy. It requires thinking differently about an educator's function and ceding some control even as you play a greater role in support and orchestration. Without proper planning, in addition, problem-solving projects can "invite chaos into [the] classroom" (as Beghetto notes) or result in meaningless nonacademic work.
This issue doesn't provide a set formula for how to make problem-based tasks work, but it does highlight a number of examples of the painstaking and creative work involved. Consider the carefully designed and structured year-end Global Challenge that Mark Wise and Jay McTighe describe, or Mike Flynn's discussion of how he conceptualized and plotted his three-act math task. Cathy L. Seeley, meanwhile, offers detailed tips on the shifts needed for teachers to orchestrate lessons "centered on students' thinking," while Dan Sussman discusses his search for just the right texts to support problem-based tasks in his English class.
For discussion or reflection: What do these examples have in common? How can they inform your school's development of problem-based units or lessons? What opportunities and challenges do these suggestions for planning pose?

What's the Problem?

Many of the articles also offer suggestions or ideas on the types of complex challenges that work best in problem-based lessons. In their article on place-based learning, for example, Ethan Lowenstein and Gregory Smith suggest identifying local environmental issues that capture students' attention and social awareness. In his piece on STEAM lessons, Charlie Harper recommends building whole interdisciplinary units around "everyday problems"—such as gardening or wiring a light bulb—that will "interest students and offer multiple discoveries and learning opportunities." By contrast, Mark Wise and Jay McTighe's article shows students grappling with complex international issues—though in a way that leverages their own interests and prior learning.
Several of the articles also suggest starting on problem-based learning in targeted or incremental ways, in effect using the approach to inform or deepen regular curriculum. "The main idea is to prioritize student thinking, reasoning, and problem solving … and to structure classrooms where those outcomes consistently valued," writes Cathy L. Seeley.
For discussion or reflection: How could you introduce problem solving into your existing teaching practices? What kinds of challenges might you use to anchor lessons? How might problem-based learning, even on a small scale, change the culture of your classroom or school?

Resources for Further Study

Use these ASCD resources to learn more about developing and supporting problem-based learning.

ASCD Books

  • Everyday Problem-Based Learning: Quick Projects to Build Problem-Based Fluency (2017) by Brian Pete and Robin Fogerty.
  • Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry (2014) by Larissa Pahamov.

PD In Focus

  • Project-Based Learning: An Answer to the Common Core Challenge
  • Understanding by Design: The Backward Design Process

EL’s experienced team of writers and editors produces Educational Leadership magazine, an award-winning publication that reaches hundreds of thousands of K-12 educators and leaders each year. Our work directly supports the mission of ASCD: To empower educators to achieve excellence in learning, teaching, and leading so that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. 

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Unleashing Problem Solvers
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