10 More Ways to Unleash Problem Solvers (Part 2)

What can we do in our classrooms to increase student agency and skill to solve content-related problems and develop important life skills?

In Part 1 of this post, I identified five action steps to take in the classroom to unleash problem-solving based on some of the articles in the October 2017 issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine.  In this Part 2 post, I share summaries of additional articles in this issue about place-and-community-based education, student agency, and design thinking.  Then, I include some action steps for us to try in our own classrooms and additional questions to consider as we try out these strategies to incorporate problem-solving opportunities for our students.


Making a World of Difference by Looking Locally (p. 50-56) 

Ethan Lowenstein (@lowensteinethan) and Gregory Smith shared a wonderful example of how a preschool program in Michigan used place-and community-based education to encourage students to engage in problem-solving within their own neighborhood.  While we often talk about incorporating authentic learning opportunities for students, it is often difficult, forced, or not well received when educators try to do this within the confines of textbook problems.  However, Lowenstein and Smith described how these students examined heavy rain events in authentic contexts and actually developed a wetland to reduce erosion.  This also led to a partnership with a nearby school to create a permaculture garden and an additional project for students to investigate road salt and the impact on creeks and living creatures.  Imagine how the students felt after these experiences!  The magic happens when students become engaged in meaningful activities that lead to social or environmental improvements that they can see.  The authors also suggested having elementary and high school students collaborating and sharing knowledge to benefit a community – this type of collaboration can accelerate what younger children can do and give older students opportunities to guide and lead.  Students develop a sense of agency and realize they can make a difference.

Many teachers will probably wonder how to incorporate this approach to problem-based-learning in the classroom with concerns about time, curriculum pacing, or testing accountability.  Personally, I see Genius Hour or 20% time as a really great way to introduce this into the classroom and start incorporating the action steps below.  For example, the Genius Hour project could require students to improve conditions related to an issue or problem in their school or community in an area of interest of their choosing.

Action Step #1:  Help students develop a sense of engagement within the community

  • Encourage activities and assignments where students:
    • research the history of the community
    • read about the local context
    • interview residents who can offer various perspectives
    • interact with local officials
    • partner with local schools (same age group or different)
    • write to the local newspaper

Action Step #2:  Help students develop an affection and a sense to affect change

  • Encourage activities and assignments where students:
    • take action to engage with, participate in, and improve various aspects of the community (planting, picking up liter..)
    • examine local flora and fauna for opportunities to evaluate situations and identify areas for problem-solving
    • have opportunities to mentor and include younger students in the project

Action Step #3:  Move forward without having it all figured out

  • Engage students in community-based experiences that encourage student curiosities, interests, and questions to surface allowing those motivations to guide upcoming curriculum

Action Step #4:  Develop relationships with community members, groups, and local experts that can add resources and expertise for students – including identifying local educators looking to collaborate on place-and community-based education

  • Identify and reach out:  What local individuals, groups, organizations or companies can help students connect with community experts related to the standards and curriculum?
  • Find education twitter hashtags and education twitter chats that will help connect with local educators
  • Attend local EdCamps and attend sessions related to community education

Building Students’ Sense of Agency (p. 58-62)

Shari Tishman and Edward Clapp (@edwardpclapp) started their article by identifying a not so often talked about component of problem-solving:  that students who exhibit good problem-solving skills are often really good at identifying problems in the first place.  To help students identify problems and opportunities for improvement, we can help them be observant and curious about the systems that exist in their environments.

Another key piece to problem-solving is that students must feel a sense of agency.  The authors explain this as “a sense that it’s possible to reshape the way things are by directing one’s actions purposefully” (p. 58).  This is something that can be developed in students and applied across content areas and daily situations.  This can be done by regularly encouraging students to note of the parts and processes of elements in their environment.  In doing this, students become motivated to tweak and redesign something or even design something new.

There are some really great examples outlined in this article.  The steps mentioned below can easily be applied to objects and complex systems across grade levels and content areas.  The authors gave an example of examining the parts, purpose, and complexities of an individual chair – but also – the parts, people, and interactions of the many functions, designs, and reasons why people in various settings (ex: an airplane) use chairs.  This gives students different ways of thinking about the designs and uses of a single option opening up the mind to infinite possibilities.  While the authors mentioned using human-made objects for study in these examples, I see potential for slightly tweaking the questions to allow for study of things like cells – as a single object – as well as part of a bigger system.  I think the important thing is that students are doing the thinking and analysis – instead of the teacher.

Action Step #5: Build students’ inclinations and capacities to shape the world

  • Foster agency and an “I-can-do-that” spirit with activities that include:
    • building
    • tinkering
    • redesigning
    • making

Action Step #6:  Cultivate students’ sensitivity to design by encouraging observations of objects and systems and their malleability

  • Incorporate the authors’ thinking routines (p. 60):
    • Parts, Purposes, Complexities:

      • Ask students to examine the design of any human-made-object and identify
        1. What are its parts?
        2. What are its purposes?
        3. What are its complexities?
    • Parts, People, Interactions
      • Ask students to examine any complex system and identify:
        1. What are the parts of the system?
        2. Who are the people connected to the system?
        3. How do the people in the system interact with each other and with the parts of the system
  • Help foster a sense of curiosity and wonder in the classroom
    • Ask students: “what do you think would happen if…” or “how could you change the function of…”

Action Step #7:  Incorporate the Agency by Design Framework (p. 62) by asking students to:

  1. Look closely  (slow down…. observe…)
  2. Explore complexity  (understand how various parts interact with each other)
  3. Find opportunity (look for potential to change and improve an object or system)

Kidding Around with Design Thinking (p. 65-69)

Jaunine Fouche (@Jaunine_Fouche) and Joel Crowley (@kickkrowley) started out with an observation that I feel is important to include here:  “There is an enduring paradigm in education:  Study content long enough, and eventually there will be a magic tipping point when you know enough to start doing something with your knowledge” (p. 65).  I feel like this is unfortunate especially for elementary and middle school students who, in their prime years of ambition and curiosity, are constantly told to wait.  The authors of this article created a K-4 Innovation Lab to give students authentic ways to apply content and skills through open-ended projects.  For example, a group of second graders has posed the question, “How might we keep baby goats safe?”  Students did research that encompassed math, design, and technology skills to create 2-D and then 3-D prototypes.  The important thing is for design thinking is that it does not take place in the students’ heads, but rather they learn by doing and seeing how their designs work.  Work must be hands-on and visual.  Students also were able to develop empathy (another element of design thinking) by having a goat wear a GoPro and students watching time-lapse video footage.

The authors pointed out a false premise that this type of work has to come at the expense or in lieu of standards, curriculum, and test preparation.  “We should consider how content standards translate into opportunities that are big enough for and relatable enough for kids to matter, but small enough for kids to tackle” (p. 69).  The full article is available here.

Action Step #8:  Let students use their knowledge now. 

  • Look for opportunity in your standards, curriculum, and existing projects to see how you could set up a unit that has students using design thinking for open-ended authentic content-related project at their level.
  • Partner with a higher grade level so that younger students can benefit from the content knowledge of the older students while being able to contribute and learn how the content applies to real situations.  Students will probably learn some content knowledge and also some soft-skills on how to proceed with a project.

Action Step #9:  Incorporate the elements of Design Thinking into your next project.  The authors suggest the project should:

  1. Build empathy
  2. Be open-ended  (multiple solutions, uses collaboration, and includes sustained inquiry — answers are not found from an internet search)
  3. Be prototype driven (require students to create at least one prototype to try out)
  4. Require application of content and skills in new contexts

Action Step #10:  Prepare students for the real world:   People are valued for what they can do – not just what they know.

  • Give students opportunities to engage in design based projects where they are able to go through the iterative process of design to improve a prototype
  • Give students opportunities to develop grit to continue through a challenge and to keep going when things don’t work out on the first try.  Too often, students create something and submit the first product for a grade.  Life doesn’t usually work like this.  Give students an opportunity to get feedback, test out their first idea, and then modify their work for a final submission.
  • Give students opportunities to develop portfolios where they are “building a brand” of what they are able to do and what they have created to solve authentic content-related problems
  • Include space and time for students to document reflections about the process.  This is where important soft skills for school, life, and work can be fostered.

Questions for Conversation and Connections

Overall, this issue is really helping me to consider the big purposes of education and forcing reflection on how to integrate life/soft skills into the classroom on a regular basis.  After reflecting on the articles in Post 1 and this follow-up post, here are some questions I’m thinking about.  Please post in the comments or connect with me on twitter (@smithdianemarie)!

  • How do you ensure that students find content relevant and meaningful?
  • Does your school have any place-community-based projects in place?  Or, do you have ideas on what you could do with your students?
  • Do you have suggestions on how schools can build relationships with local experts and organizations?
  • Have you (or have you seen other teachers who)  have incorporated “tinkering” into the classroom in a way for students to observe, analyze, and tweak objects or systems?
  • How do we help students become risk takers in a world that are usually defined by success and grades (instead of attempts and improvements)?
  • How do we build empathy in students (especially in some of the science and math content areas)?
  • How do we help students “build a brand”?
  • For teachers with rigid curriculum pacing guides, how do you incorporate time for authentic learning opportunities, multiple prototypes, and feedback opportunities for students to engage in design thinking?
  • How do we help students adjust to design-based approaches – especially for students who find comfort in compliance and knowing exactly how to get an “A”?
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