Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Whose problem is it?

"Education systems, teachers, school districts all over the world are going crazy about problem-based learning - nothing like a good problem to solve. But they are looking at the wrong bit of it. The thing we're neglecting is to find a generation of problem finders."
The above quote comes early in Ewan McIntosh's talk at TEDxLondon. This really connects with my goal to foster sustainable learning. Here is the entire talk (it is well worth the eight minutes):

I want learners to come up with their own problems - to be able to answer, "Now what?" for themselves. Most times when I try to implement a problem finding curriculum, however, two issues interfere: trust and control. You see, I know what they need to know because I know what I learned and how it has helped me. How can I be sure learners will follow the correct path, find the right problems, if I do not lead them either explicitly or implicitly?

Here is a good example. Over the winter holiday break, I went on a hike through a state managed forest. Along the trail were a variety of signs describing interesting facts about the trees and forest management. The sign below was of particular interest to me.
I thought it had a lot of potential for use in a course on teaching and learning middle school mathematics that I am scheduled to lead this semester. It would provide a great context for the geometry section as I asked my learners to make Biltmore and Merritt Rule Sticks using the information provided. The problem was perfect, but as Ewan points out, it was also mine.

Given my interest in sustainable learning, I would be better off owning the problem myself and using it as a demonstration. It would offer an opportunity for thinking aloud about identifying problems in contexts that interest me - the first step in the gradual release of responsibility. Then, with my support, the learners could begin to find their own problems in whatever math content we must address. By the end of the course, hopefully, the learners could find problems for themselves.

With awareness and effort, I have gotten better at letting my learners lead the way. Every success allows me to trust them a little bit more and give up trying to control the curriculum. Maybe 2012 will be the year I learn to really let go.


  1. A brilliant out loud thinking of what this way of thinking requires on the tracher's part. Thank you. Please let us know how this works out in principal.

  2. I think there needs to be a balance between using student generated problems and teacher generated. The fact is that there are many times in the work world where employees have to do things they are not interested in.

    My daughter goes to a project based high school who estimated carbon emissions based on tree size. They went out to a forest, took some measurements and estimates based on angles, then estimated tree density. She still remembers the math behind it even though it was not something she was necessarily interested in. However, she currently is having trouble with her new math teacher because she is asked to trust her as she works through the math, but as my daughter puts it, "sometimes I just need a clear cut answer to my question." Yes, she can work it out eventually, but in the end, sometimes its less frustrating to give some direction based on student questions.

  3. Thanks, Ewan. I appreciate you taking the time to comment here. I'll let you know how it goes.

    V Yonkers - thanks also for your comment.

    I agree that balance is key but not because I think schools should prepare learners to do jobs they aren't interested in doing. Schools are, however, responsible for introducing new things to learners that they might not otherwise encounter. Schools also need to help learners to find their own way to connect to important information being presented in uninteresting ways - airline safety procedures come to mind. I am hoping my next post will address some of this.

    As to your point about your daughter just wanting clear cut answers, I think it is valid. One of the things I hope we are doing in preparing teachers is asking them to consider what support is needed and reasonable in any situation. Answering every question with a question is an extreme position not a balanced one.

  4. I think using your ideas and questions about the forestry sign as a think-through-aloud demonstration is a great idea. Your observation that your observations, interests, presentation and internal questions bias and restrict what your students experience and think about is valid.

    I think this bias is one problem I have with Dan Meyer's #anyqs and #wcydwt approaches. His approaches are useful tools, periodically, but they seem so "read my mind" to me. I would rather students attend to what is before them rather than what I am thinking about and want them to figure out. As V Yonkers stated, we need to use many methods to help our students learn and deal with problem triggers, such as employers presenting problems in various ways. Our best option is to be responsive to our students, our lesson competence, and the premise and content of our lesson. No one method or style alone works.

  5. Shawn,
    I agree. If approaches represent a means to an end (for me, this is problem finders), then great. If the approach is the end (or a metaphoric dead end), then I wonder if it is worth doing. This is my current teaching question: "Will this be something that is sustainable when the learner is on his/her own?"

  6. Your post reminds me of a recent workshop where the speaker mentioned that we should teach children to hold off on Googling for the answer to a question. This endeavor for kids to come up with their own problems would take away the need for them to lament "when will I ever use this?" It is a challenging charge, no doubt, but a worthy one.