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Bombs & Breakthroughs

How to Develop Students into "Problem-Finders" and why it matters

CJ Westerberg, April 23, 2013 4:02 PM


"When we look at this learning approach in action,
we see highly empowered children
who know what and why they're learning,
where they've been on their learning journey
where they're headed next.
-Ewan McIntosh

The Problem-Finders
Designing for Great Learning

Ewan McIntosh
Edinburgh, Scotland

Project-based learning is hugely popular around the world as a means of engaging students more deeply with their learning. Yet, the various flavours of project-based learning --- problem-based learning, challenge-based learning, enquiry-based learning, Montessori, Reggio Emilia --- typically involve a teacher designing open-ended questions or problems for students to solve. Cultivating problem-solvers is important. Much more vital is the capacity for ambitious learners to find deep, interesting and important problems to solve for themselves. How then might we design projects that support students in becoming problem finders?

This is not a new challenge. Boston-based educator Alan November told me a story about his Community Problem Solving course. On the first day, he gave students the task of finding a problem in the local community that they would then solve using whatever technology they had available. From the front row a hand shot up. "Mr November?" began one of the girls in the class. "You're the teacher, we're the students. It's your job to come up with the problems and give them to us to solve." This was 1983, but it could have happened in most schools today.

In contrast, at Rosendale Primary School in London, an increasing number of students are responsible for choosing what they learn, how they learn it and when they go about it. Rather than waiting for the teacher to provide problems to solve, students here have to find the juicy problems they want to explore, within a given theme.

This exploration often begins with an Immersion Box - a set of physical artefacts, digital resources and experiences provided by the teacher and designed to stimulate curiosity. From there, it's up to the students. Through the use of questioning and ideation techniques, students are asked to produce higher order questions around the content about which they are passionate - "un-Googleable" questions that open up learning-rich tangents. For example, while exploring the theme of London is Full: Evacuate! students analyzed old maps and archived news clippings, interviewed relatives, planned field trips, and used the internet to learn about population growth, living conditions and overcrowding, as well as the water cycle.

During this time, the teacher rarely taught to the whole class. She did, however, have one-on-one conferences with every student at least once a week, sometimes more, to see where they were at in their learning, and where they were headed.

In any number of nearby schools, most students would be following almost identical paths through bodies of knowledge, each creating all-too-similar products of learning at the end of the process. However, none of these Rosendale students follow the same route to the same learning conclusions. There is, arguably, too much information for one student to ever consider, so they have to self-organize and teach each other what they find, decide what's relevant and think about what it all means.

However, none of these Rosendale students follow the same route to the
same learning conclusions.

The key difference in this approach is who asks the questions. One aim of Rosendale's learning approach is that students design their own essential questions, which they then explore. The results can be felt and heard. When we look at this learning approach in action, we see highly empowered children who know what and why they're learning, where they've been on their learning journey and where they're headed next.

These three elements are the foundation of solid formative assessment,
the mental toolset that enables students to own their own learning
(Wiliam, 2001).

These three elements are the foundation of solid formative assessment, the mental toolset that enables students to own their own learning (Wiliam, 2001). For example, Rosendale students log their learning moments on Evernote in video, audio, photo or text notes. Learning to recognize when they've had a learning moment is, in the beginning, a new sensation for the learners. It's a skill that needs to be taught, not caught. "Guide on the side" is an apt description of a teacher in this environment.

What Makes Learning Great?

Fundamental to what makes great learning are what English researcher Guy Claxton calls
 "The Three Rs and The Three Cs" (Claxton, 2008). Within this framework, students want:

  • Responsibility for their own learning, and their assessment of where they are in their learning.
  • Respect for the learning paths they choose to undertake. Nothing deflates a learner more than a "that's interesting, dear, but how about this way . . .?" response to their idea.
  • Real things to sink their teeth into, not the fake pseudo-problems criticized by people like mathematics teacher and blogger Dan Meyer and the Thanks Textbooks blog.
  • Challenge in the tasks that they undertake, which means that the tasks are open-ended and designed to engage each student in their zone of proximal development.
  • Collaboration, particularly if the journey ahead is going to be a challenging one. Collaboration is not group work. Truly collaborative learning balances individual accountability with group outcomes.
  • Choice. Sheena Iyengar's (2010) research over the past decade suggests that perhaps somewhere between 3-10 choices is perfect for your average human. Most schools, even those working with challenge-based learning or projects, struggle to provide students with choices in the way that they will approach their learning.

Most schools, even those working with challenge-based learning or projects, struggle to provide students
with choices
in the way that they will approach their learning.

Design Thinking: A Framework for Rigorous Creative Learning
Design thinking provides a helpful framework and a common language for students, teachers and parents who are after great learning. This is not a surprise. For the past decade, I have worked with, invested in and built start-up companies in the technology, media and fashion industries. Those who consistently come up with creative and successful ideas are those who explicitly or implicitly harness design thinking to find problems worth solving. I have also seen the use of design thinking lead to more engaged students and better academic performance, in elementary and high schools, in urban and suburban schools, in public and private schools.

Design thinking (Brown, 2009) begins with an immersion into a potential problem area - engaging in research, empathy studies, and observations, followed by a process of honing in on key problems to be solved. All this comes before any problem solving. Yet, in most schools, even those with a strong bias towards problem-based curricula, this is traditionally what the teacher still does for the student.

Once the problem is identified, design thinkers move on to the ideation, prototyping and feedback phases - coming up with ideas to solve the problem and rapidly creating possible solutions in order to gain feedback and begin the process again until they have a viable solution.  In schools, students usually get one crack at having their idea come to fruition, and the teacher provides the feedback, normally with a final grade attached. In the real world, and through processes like Design Thinking, feedback is self- and peer-focused, continuous and affects the product of learning before it's "fully baked."

So, how can we support teachers and students in becoming design thinkers and problem finders?

"Forward-framing": Teachers Do It First
Over the past few years I've worked with groups of teachers in Brisbane and Sydney, Australia, exploring how their new national curriculum connects to the themes already on their school calendar, and which of these has the most potential for juicy problems (i.e. problems worth solving). We play on paper. We discuss which potential problems will work. We try them out in a prototype. These themes - ranging from sustainability to language making to scientific discovery - are vast, leading to an infinite number of problems for young people to find, frame and go about solving for themselves.

This is as much "planning" as is possible. Identifying the topic and resourcing experiences, artefacts and media is the largest task. As the students' creativity drives the ideas and products of learning that follow, it's impossible for the teacher to plan in great detail what will be done when. Instead, we "forward frame"  - we build a framework complete with activities, ideation and questioning techniques we know work well to help students' questions and learning grow around our frame.

The Framework in Practice
Having thought through each topic once as teachers, we're ready to let our students begin a similar journey, with a fair idea of where the learning might go, thanks to our
 forward-framing preparation and discussions. The trick here is to not let ideas from the planning bound what students will ultimately do. Students may come up with a problem we may not have anticipated, and it is the teacher's responsibility to encourage them to pursue those ideas too.

problemFinders.jpgFor example, one group of teachers allowed their seven-year-old students almost free rein
to explore the theme of persuasive speaking and writing. They went on to build the world's youngest TEDxKids event. Students immersed themselves, as their teachers had, in over
200 TED talks, before turning their research and creative energy to solving some of the world's most pressing - or simply most interesting - problems: Do animals talk? Do babies have a secret language? Which cancer should we invest in curing first? Why do slugs needs slime?

Another group of students in a Brisbane primary school chose to explore living for 24 hours without technology, to immerse themselves not just in what makes technology so vital, but also the challenges and problems to our wellbeing that technology brings. From this starting point, the visceral, emotionally bound experience of living without their favourite gadgets, students arrived at higher order "non-Googleable" questions: Why might someone else think that living without electricity is a good thing? Can we write a set of instructions for the day that the electricity runs out? How would you improve our chances of not having brownouts and blackouts? If you could change one thing about Australia's energy policies what would it be?

In 2011, in the space of 21 days, we gathered over 10,000 young people online to generate solutions to the very problems that, thousands of miles away in Geneva, the (mostly) men in suits of the United Nations were discussing. Young people didn't just come up with the ideas in isolation. Their questions, ideas and solutions were used live on stage at the UN, as provocations for the decision-making discussions about how much spectrum we should release to mobile phone users, or what we should do when the internet "runs out" (interestingly, IPv4 addresses ran out late summer 2012).

Problem Finding in Schools
It takes courage for a teacher to let go of the reins of learning sufficiently to inspire problem finding where the questions are "Non-Googleable." No textbook, teacher or standardized test knows the answer. The teacher's voice is but one of 30, 300 or 3000 guiding, coaxing and coaching through the ether. Yet, this kind of learning surpasses the depth of thinking demanded by many of our more "traditional" modes. Design thinking engenders self-efficacy - the feeling that you can change the world around you, that you can make an impact.  In the "real" world, high ambition, tight deadlines and impossible "wicked problems" frame many learning opportunities. So it should be in schools.

I began with a story about my friend Alan's class, where his students protested  that "he was the teacher, and they were the students." After a year of problem-finding, those students insisted on the school opening up over the summer vacation so they could continue to find problems and solve them. When a new computer arrived, a student broke into school over the vacation - not to steal the computer, but to practice writing code. It's rare we hear of students breaking into school to learn. I guess that's what problem-finding does to people.

Brown, T. (2009). Change by Design: How Design Thinking Can Transform Organizations and Inspire Innovation. New York, N.Y.: Collins Business.

Claxton, G. (2008). Whatís the Point of School? Rediscovering the Heart of Education. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications.

Iyengar, S. (2010, June). Sheen Iyengar on the Art of Choosing. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_on_the_art_of_choosing.html

McIntosh, E. (2011, June). Ambition in Speaking and Writing: TEDx by 8 Year Olds. Retrieved from: http://www.notosh.com/2011/06/thorney-close-primary-school-tedxkidssland/

McIntosh, E. (2011, July). The Design Thinking School. Retrieved from http://www.notosh.com/2011/07/the-design-thinking-school/

McIntosh, E. (2011, November). ITU Telecom World 11: The Youth Metaconference. Retrieved from: http://www.notosh.com/2011/11/itu_metaconference/

Meyer, D. "dy/dan" blog, PseudoContextSaturday category, accessed September 21st, 2012: http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?cat=89

Wiliam, D. (2001). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. Retrieved from http://weaeducation.typepad.co.uk/files/blackbox-1.pdf . Accessed November 23, 2012.

For more examples of problem finding, design thinking and assessment for learning in action visit:  edu.blogs.com or www.notosh.com

This article originally appeared in unBoxed, Fall 2012, A Journal of Adult Learning in Schools, via High Tech High.

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