I have long been passionate about problems in learning (and Problem Based Learning), and even more so since my visit to New Technology High School in October 2008, and since working (in a very small way) with the Buck Institute’s Jason Ravitz on an article on this topic. As Ted McCain writes, brilliantly, in Teaching for Tomorrow, we need to invert the conventional classroom dynamic: instead of teaching information and content first, and then asking students to answer questions about it second, we should put the question/problem first, and then facilitate students with information and guidance as they seek the answer and hold them highly accountable for the excellence of their solutions and of their presentation of their results.

I am working now to think through and discern what particular and compelling term best captures this approach: is “problem based learning” the answer? (Share with me your thoughts about terminology by using the “leave a comment button.”)

The College and Work Readiness Assessment, which we use at St. Gregory to assess our students’ learning of critical thinking, communication, and problem solving, uses the term “Performance Task” to capture and convey the learning approach I am trying to describe here. The CWRA is such an interesting test because it doesn’t ask students to provide answers regarding information they have already encountered, but it asks students to solve problems by reviewing new information presented.

CWRA’s parent, CAE, has now launched an important new initiative called CLA in the Classroom and the “Performance Task Academy.” Check out the fun website they have, complete with graphics from the Simpsons and a “CLA-doku.” They also have something very cool, a “performance task library” of tasks designed by teachers and available for sharing. To further illustrate what they mean by performance task, they borrow from an advocate for authentic assessment, as follows:

“The traditional modes of assessment of knowledge are seen as inadequate because they fail to assess students’ capability in the authentic activities of their discipline. The authentic assessment movement would instead reflect the complex performances that are central to a field of study (e.g. writing a position paper on an environmental issue, investigating a mathematical concept).

The debate continues, questioning the validity of the claim that authentic assessment is a true measure of students’ capacity to generalise their learning to new situations. Given that students orient their study towards their perception of the assessment, the solution offered is to find more challenging forms of assessment.

Tony Wagner describes this kind of learning in his book, Global Achievement Gap, but I don’t know he finds or uses a particular term to capture it. On p. 65, after describing many classrooms where students are not learning what they need, he writes:

The classrooms which do work are the “exceptions to the rule–[they are the ones where] the teachers use academic content as a means of teaching students how to communicate, reason, and solve problems…

[As an example]: Algebra II: It is the beginning of the period, and the teacher is finishing writing a problem on the board. He turns to the students, who are sitting in desk-chairs that are arranged in squares of four that face one another. “You haven’t seen this type of problem before,” he explains. “And solving it will require you to use concepts from both geometry and algebra. Each group will try to develop at least two different ways of solving this problem.

Grant Wiggins, the awesome guru of Understanding by Design, frames his own variant of this pursuit with the label of “Essential Questions;” he urges teachers to use this approach to structure classroom learning as being in pursuit of answering.

It should also be noted that problem based learning is not a very far cry from the kind of case-study learning famously practiced at Harvard Business School, and now also increasingly used in medical school education.

Over at Apple, they are promoting a model they call Challenge Based Learning, which incorporates these concepts while putting an emphasis, (unsurprisingly and self-servingly, but not inappropriately) on equipping and empowering students with digital tools to address and confront these challenges or problems. They write:

Challenge Based Learning is an engaging multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning that encourages students to leverage the technology they use in their daily lives to solve real-world problems. Challenge Based Learning is collaborative and hands-on, asking students to work with other students, their teachers, and experts in their communities and around the world to develop deeper knowledge of the subjects students are studying, accept and solve challenges, take action, share their experience, and enter into a global discussion about important issues.

Beyond worrying about what to call it, there is one other important question to consider as we think about problem-based learning: are we cheating our students when we give them the problem, rather than asking/insisting they identify the problem themselves? I am arguing in this post that it is better to start students with questions/problems than with answers, but as Tony Wagner writes, quoting the founder of High Tech High‘s Larry Rosenstock: for our students, “problem posing is more important than problem solving.”

I know I might be over thinking this, but as we deploy greater problem-based learning in our schools, we need to make sure we also regularly ask students to step back before seeking to solve the problem and begin by reframing the issue and asking penetrating questions about it. We need to sometimes ask them to wade into a morass of information or into a complicated situation and ask them to identify what is the problem that needs solving, or the question that most needs answering about the situation.

Below is a video from the Apple Challenge Based Learning program; I don’t love it, but I like it. It draws strongly upon Grant Wiggins’ work, and uses some of his concepts such as Big Ideas and Essential Questions. One of its values, it has to be said, is that it speaks exactly to the quandary presented immediately above: in the video, the student is not presented with a problem to solve, but is required to spend time working to reflect on a “big idea” and identify many possible questions about it before selecting a guiding “essential question.” Check it out.

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