Problems:  Challenge them to do something first.  I could feel my heart-rate elevate when at or near the beginning of class our teacher started our learning with a difficult problem or question to wrestle with.   Learning should begin not with the delivery of information, but the posing of a problem.  

PBL is a now common jargon for project-based learning, but this blogger prefers the concepts when broadened by a definition of Problem-Based Learning.  After all, the best project base learning happens when those “projects” are built to solve a problem or answer a question.    Problem can also be broadened to include what Wiggins calls Essential Questions.  A brilliant statement from a very fine short book  Teaching for Tomorrow captures this in its recommendation for better “teaching for tomorrow:” “Making a fundamental shift– problems first, teaching second.”

Launching into learning from the pads of problems, students pursue their subject with greater initiative, and are better able to measure their own proficiency gains by  their ability to solve their problem or answer the essential question.     

Beginning class with problems and questions, in this blogger’s observations, ncreases the student energy level for the remainder of the class period, and changes the dynamic when lectures are presented– now the information delivery has a new meaning for the listener, who wants to hear it because it will aid in the goal of solving the problem.   New Technology H.S. handles this brilliantly; teachers there are almost prohibited from lecturing UNLESS students, while solving problems, solicit their teachers to provide them a “just-in-time” lecture, (which they label a “workshop.”)

Any kind of problem will do, but some are better than other; the more real the problem, the more connected to the real world and to real-world challenges, the more motivated students will be.   Building their learning from real-world problems serves our most profound aspirations anyway, that they learn the skills and the content to better succeed in their real world challenges.   But it is more motivating too, because it is not only that we want our kids to be able to solve the problems of their world, the ones most significant to them, but this what they want also.

At University High School, I watched a Physics classroom come alive when our teacher gave the students a problem: design a ramp to land a ball in a set spot.  I watched as, in tackling it, students learned about force, acceleration, mass, and gravity.  Set the challenge first, provide succinctly the information needed to get started, and then coach, provide feedback, facilitate, support kids as they work to learn what they need to learn to solve and answer the question.

Examples: Below are opening sentences, and in most cases, links to the full narratives, of my live-blog observations of classrooms effectively using problems to enhance student learning.   Please note: these narratives are written “on-the-fly” in the moment as I sit in classrooms observing and writing; they have a raw and unedited quality to them.

Bay School, Math Class: Now the students are all at work; they are in groups of 2-4 (they tell me they get some degree of choice about with whom they can work), each at a whiteboard, and they are diligently working through a sheet titled “Investigation 7.” More

Bay School, Chemistry Class: After a short review problem on the board, students are distributed into groups.  A problem set is being distributed, with the answers providing the combinations to a locker in which is stored reward chemistry, in a kind of scavenger hunt modeMore

Bay School, History Syllabus: I review the teacher’s syllabus, which is very impressive.  The course is organized not chronologically but thematically– which she says is wise because it how historians in the real world do it.  The themes chosen, and I love this, are the ones the teachers have determined are “most relevant to today’s world and most necessary to prepare ourselves to grapple with the imminent future.”

Urban School, English Class
They are to discuss and discern what’s on the board:”what’s the point?!  How do you read, interpret, make meaning of this chapter?  Present the pith, the meaty interior.” More

CART Bio-Engineering Course Outline:  The teacher provides me a course outline, complete with these UbD essential questions: “What the heck is BioEngineering, and who the heck cares?   How would you go about becoming a BioTechnologist?   What would you be doing if you were a bioengineer or in some related field? What are the tools and techniques of bioengineering and how can they be used to improve our quality of life? Are the practices of bioengineering compatible with your personal ethics/morals/beliefs?  How can bioengineering be used to improve the health problems of people living in the SJV caused by environmental problems?  How does your environment and culture influence you?  What are health issues related to the environment?”

CART BioMedicine:  Next we watch 10 minutes from a very compelling episode of House, projected digitally.  The scene is of a high school student in class, getting ill– really connecting to these kids and their lives, emotionally grabbing them.  Why is he ill? More

University High School, Physics Class: After quiz review, assignment is distributed.   Students are required here to design their own experiments, and have a framework for that, but he says he is not going to handhold for experiments. More..

University High School, English Class:
Class begins with what the teacher says is a “soft start” to accommodate kids coming in from other classes– there is a handout, with a philosophical paragraph, and students are reading and taking notes on it.  More

Franklin High School, IB History:  Students form up groups, and are reviewing  a bill of rights handout; there are ten statements, and students need to evaluate as a group whether each is is constitutionally protected. More

Franklin HS, IB English: The omnipresent smartboard is in full use here, with a literary passage displayed, and the teacher says to the class “if we had this given to us on an IB exam, how would we proceed with a ‘close read?’” More..



New Technology High School Geometry:   For this project, due next week, the students have to use Autocad to construct a puzzle, and the teacher explains quite carefully that he will be the “consultant” for groups working on their puzzle, and he explains the role of a consultant. More



New Technology Biology Class:   Just as in Geometry/CADD class, there is for this multi-day lab project a so-called “entry document,” in this case a letter to the students from Genentech corporation (on corporate letterhead stationery), laying out this work-group’s project. More

Sonoma Academy History Class:  Students are asked, for six minutes at class beginning, to write freely, connecting two of these termsMore

High Tech High Social Studies:   As part of the curriculum here on globalization and participatory voices in media, the teacher has assigned them a very cool project of using the web to broadcast their voices: “Utilize the technologies and/or e-forums we are exploring in class to have your voice heard by the world.” More

High Tech High Pre-Calculus:  Here in our first period, I am in a PreCalculus class, and our students are working on a long term project on Debt and Investments.   More

2 Responses to “Problems”

  1. […] Problems: Challenge them to do something first.  I could feel my heart-rate elevate when at or near the beginning of class our teacher started our learning with a difficult problem or question to wrestle with. Learning should begin not with the delivery of information, but the posing of a problem. More… […]

  2. […] Posted by Jonathan Martin under 1 Leave a Comment  I have long been passionate about problems in learning (and Problem Based Learning), and even more so since my visit to New Technology High […]

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