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

What does problem-based learning look like at Two Rivers?
Problems are opportunities, but how does a school create and capitalize on those opportunities? What does the problem-based learning approach look look like in in a typical school day?  Walking into a classroom at Two Rivers, what instructional strategies and moves might a visitor see that are preparing our students to be flexible problem-solvers?  

Over the past two years, our staff has focused its energy around planning math instruction that empowers students as mathematicians and prepares them for the higher demands of the common core standards.  Across all grades, we have implemented an instructional strategy called “problem-based tasks.”  These tasks turn the traditional lesson plan (I do, we do, you do) on its head.  After a short introduction, students are given problems with all of the qualities we listed above (ill-structured, open-ended). Teachers act as coaches, guiding but not dictating student thinking as they try to solve a problem.  Following a period of grappling with the problem, students gather together for a well-planned share and debrief session in which peers and teachers unpack different strategies for solving the problem-reflecting on both new content learned and transferable problem-solving habits of mind they can apply to solve any ill-structured problem.

Does students-centered problem solving mean we just leave them on their own?

At Two Rivers, we mimic real-world problems by allowing students to grapple with these problems as the heart of their learning experiences in and out of the classroom. When students enter the 21st century workforce, it is unlikely that their bosses or mentors will give them a problem and then lay out the exact steps for solving it.  Instead, they will be given a problem and asked to solve it.

This is not to say that all learning at Two Rivers is constructivist.  There are times when students do need exact steps and skills that require explicit instruction.  We seek to balance direct instruction and constructivist learning so that students are able to acquire discrete skills and deeper, foundational understandings that can be flexibly applied to problems.  Maintaining this balance requires embedding the problem-based approach into all subjects that students study.  For example, in the second grade curriculum, students learn all about the importance of laws and the process by which legislators create laws.   Teachers at this grade level design problems that students can solve using their knowledge and understanding of laws.  Taking on the expert role of legislators, students are tackling a problem with unsafe play at recess.  They will mimic the process of real legislators in order to create the school “law” that solves the playground problem. Once again, we are finding ways for students to solve authentic problems which will prepare them to do so in all parts of their educational career and future in the 21st century workforce.

Every Social Conflict Becomes a Learning Opportunity

At Two Rivers we extend the problem-based learning approach to our social emotional curriculum as well.   As any teacher can attest, a typical school day includes problems that arise organically in terms of student interactions and behavior.  Students get into arguments with one another, break rules, and face disappointments and obstacles.   Given that life as an adult in the 21st century will bring similar struggles, our social emotional curriculum seeks to empower students to control their own emotions and behavior and solve their own interpersonal conflicts.  We do this through a strategy called “Problem-Solving Conferences.” These are one on one conversations between students and adults that involve collaborating to name a problem and making a plan for solving it.   By including the student in this process, rather than just gathering the adults in that students’ life and making a plan to fix the problem, we are developing a skill set that will be crucial later in life.

The “Real World” Starts Now

So what will truly set a student up for lifelong success after they leave the walls of their school experiences?  It is the ability to understand and solve complex problems.  That work cannot wait until they enter into the “real world.” As John Dewey expressed, “Education is not simply preparation for life. It is life itself.”  Lifelong learning starts now as we as educators skillfully give students multiple opportunities to solve authentic problems, communicate their solutions, and see the opportunity in every challenge. To do anything less would be closing instead of opening doors for our students.