What problem?

Project based learning and/or problem based learning has many benefits.  In my experience, PBL is definitely better than lecture style or content curriculum coverage that sucks the life out of the classroom.  However, I personally have found it hard to find authentic problems and projects that are meaningful to 9 & 10 year olds.  Is it appropriate to expose our adult real-world problems on young children? While I don’t want to shelter them from the real world (Syrian crisis, global warming etc), I think it is better that they solve problems that they are currently facing in order to build the skills of a problem solver now and in the future.  It’s not the problem itself so much as the processes and skills students can learn by tackling them.  

So I’ve come to learn that to find the most authentic real world problems for 9-10 year olds to tackle is to get THEM to identify the problems.  To do this I ask my students to reflect on their daily lives and ask questions such as:

  • When do they get stuck?
  • What are the hard parts of the day?
  • When do you get frustrated?’   

Through this process, I’ve found that this leads to uncovering some problems and potential projects that students can tackle, find solutions, and effect change in their daily lives.

My class went through this process at the beginning of the school year in our first unit of inquiry under the theme ‘How we organize ourselves’.  Grade 4 students brainstormed a list of problems and with discussion we focused in on the problem that seemed the most important to address (in their opinion).  It was also a problem that we felt we had some direct control over.  Students felt like a lot of time was being wasted in their school day lining up to go to places (specialist classes, lunch, recess etc). It was causing them stress and negativity towards each other.  With probing they articulated the problem further:  different people need different amounts of time to transition, it’s not a good use of a students time to stand in line for five minutes silently while waiting for peers to get into line.  With the number of transitions per day, the lining up time was creeping up to 30 minutes a day.  I began to see their point of view.  

So this formed the basis of their work and a group of students set about solving this problem by going through a design cycle.  Through this, they came up with a new system called the ‘Pack and Go’ system.  Instead of lining up to transition, when the class wrapped up, students packed up their supplies and headed off to wherever they needed to go without lining up.  They collected data and experimented with their procedure before making final decisions and teaching the new routine to the rest of the class.  The sense of pride was immense and they felt a great sense of responsibility in being in charge of decision making.

So problem based learning for elementary students?   Yes – but let them find the problems, teach them a process to work within so they learn how to solve problems not just how to solve that particular problem.  The key role of the teacher is to mentor students in the process and build in plenty of opportunities to reflect on their decisions. They need to learn the skills associated with problem solving so they can continue to identify and solve problems.  Ewan McIntosh refers to this in his talk about the importance of developing divergent thinkers and problem finders and importance of developing a problem finding curriculum.


What problems have your students been solving this year?  I’d love to hear examples from a variety of ages.

3 Replies to “What problem?”

  1. As a high school teacher, I appreciated reading about the challenges and successes of your work with elementary students. The line that resonated most was, “It’s not the problem itself so much as the processes and skills students can learn by tackling them.” I see the same thing at the high school level. In my experience with project based learning, I find the failures to be the best learning opportunities. When students run up against obstacles that prevent them from moving forward, they are forced to apply those “real world skills” we’re trying to instill in order to find alternative solutions. https://knightfoundation.org/blogs/knightblog/2013/11/22/classroom-real-world-10-top-skills-entrepreneurs-need/ I liked the way your example empowered your students to identify a problem and work toward a solution. Giving them ownership of the experience is such a powerful way to help them learn those processes and skills you mentioned. I’d love to see this built into more units, especially at the high school level. I’ll be curious to see if others share examples from their experiences.

  2. Hi Ann,
    Thanks for the response. I need to find a way to keep it going and embedded in more units across the year, so they continue to build on those early experiences and skills. One off is never enough. And like you said, the obstacles and failures are what make it real. For students to encounter those, they need a lot more opportunities.

    I hope more will share their examples and experiences here.

  3. Hi Tracy, I found myself agreeing out loud when I read that you believe that students need to identify the problems themselves. This is the kind of thing that makes learning meaningful for students. At our school, also elementary, students are often encouraged to ask questions about units, but teachers find it challenging to find the time to explore those questions. We have a few teachers who are starting to use genius hour to help students find time to explore their interests. The things they want to explore can be strange and surprising; chupacabras (is it real or not), having a locker at school, service dogs, local art, Minecraft. Interestingly, their interests in genius hour often linked directly to what they chose to look at for PYP Final Exhibition! I like your idea of students exploring more practical issues. In fact, we are having trouble with some practical issues about students needing to walk from class to class. And now I’m thinking we should take this issue to them. In this instance, the problem isn’t something they are choosing, but something they are causing. Perhaps they will have greater insight and will feel more tied to the solution if they help solve it. AND they can learn more about the process of problem solving. Thanks for your article.

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