By: Jazmin Heartfield, Prekindergarten Teacher; Meaghan Petersack, Second Grade Teacher; and Elaine Hou, Middle School Principal 

“What makes you the best candidate for this job?”

Fast-forward years from their career at Two Rivers, all of our students will have this question posed to them at some point in a job interview.  Years of schooling have led up to this moment. In this same moment, our students are competing against candidates who also bring with them years of schooling from other educational institutions.

So what sets the Two Rivers student apart?

Before the era of Google, the answer to the question about what made one the best candidate for the best jobs was very different than it would be today, because the world itself was very different.  The best jobs in the 20th century were out there for people who had very specific skill sets that allowed them to solve the same type of problem again and again. Memorization of facts and learning one formula to accomplish the same goal reigned as THE skill that success on the job demanded.

With the information age of the 21st century and the transforming power of technology on our world, the one skill that reigned in the 20th century is now pretty much obsolete.  Solving one type of problem with the same formula over and over again? Computers can do that. Robots will be able to do most of the work soon. In this era, we need a whole new set of thinkers and problem-solvers that can go beyond solving one type of problem in one way.

So what sets the Two Rivers student apart when it comes to problem-solving?

At Two Rivers, what sets our students apart is the problem-based learning that they are immersed in throughout their school career.  From a student’s first years in preschool to their last year in 8th grade, a Two Rivers student embraces problems.  This is not a warm and fuzzy embrace.  A Two Rivers student encounters and learns to solve purposeful and real problems throughout their curricular journey, allowing them to do the type of thinking and collaborating that a computer or robot cannot do.

When Google asks our students: “What makes you the best candidate for this job?”, the Two Rivers student will be able to talk about how their problem-based learning experience makes them a qualified “Googler”. Two Rivers students will be able to speak to how they can “flex different muscles in different situations in order to mobilize a team; use a variety of strengths and passions, not just isolated skill sets; tackle complex problems creatively and not get hung up on nailing the ‘right’ answer; and possess a comfort with ambiguity, bias to action, and a collaborative nature” to solve complex problems, problems that don’t even exist yet in a rapidly changing world (words straight from Google’s hiring criteria).  In their futures, Two Rivers students will be able to solve the toughest problems because that is what they do everyday in and out of the classroom.

What types of problems are the “right” types of problems to let students solve?

It is important to recognize the kinds of problems that students in a problem-based learning approach are asked to tackle on a daily basis. These problems do not fit neatly into boxes with pre-packaged solutions. Rather, they are messy, ill structured problems that require  unpacking and evaluating, thinking skills that will serve students well in the 21st century. The right kinds of problems are not easily solvable with simple solutions.  Instead, they require students to be creative with their thinking and application of ideas and skills. These problems are also authentic and have real-world implications. Sometimes the problem may be academic in nature, asking students to act as experts and apply what they have learned in a specific content area. Other times, it may involve social-emotional issues that spring up unexpectedly and need to be resolved in order for the classroom or school to function in a more optimal way. A good educator uses these spontaneous problems as crucial learning opportunities for lifelong learning.

It’s a Collective Endeavor

Problem-based learning allows students to be active, participants in their learning and education. It is a student-centered approach in which students are invested in the problem they are exploring as well as how it is resolved. However, while it is student centered, it does not mean that educators become passive and uninvolved in the planning and learning process. Teachers act as guides, coaching students through real world experiences and problems and helping to foster a deeper understanding through the act of both understanding and solving the problem. They often organize curriculum and units of study around a central problem that can be solved through the application of content specific skills. The problem is designed to become the main driver of learning, providing an important “so-what” to the skills that students must learn and apply.

In this learning approach, students are often asked to collaborate with their peers to investigate and make meaning of the problem they are trying to solve. Opponents to this way of learning may say that allowing students to collaborate with peers takes away some of the individual ownership of a task and enables students to depend on peers rather than do their own work. However, this kind of collaboration allows students to see and discuss different viewpoints and strategies, which will contribute to their own individual growth as well as the growth of their peers. Collaboration, when facilitated by educators to be learning opportunities, leads to the realization that we are not only responsible for our own growth and learning, but also that of our entire community.  In their role as collaborative problem-solvers, students come to understand that in order for everyone to be successful, we all must contribute. When students are asked to collaborate, they are required to practice and develop social skills that are crucial for working with others, effectively becoming part of creating larger solutions to problems that currently don’t even exist.  This is the type of thinking that Google is looking for, the type of thinking that opens doors for students in the 21st century.

PART 2 ON WHAT DOES PROBLEM-BASED LEARNING LOOK LIKE AT TWO RIVERS? WILL BE POSTED ON APRIL 3, 2015.