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In the 1980s, somebody decided that haircuts were way too messy. So, they combined a hair trimmer with a vacuum cleaner and we ended up with the Flowbee. I remember begging my parents for a Flowbee and they said “no,” because they thought I would use it on the dog. And they were right. But the idea is pretty clear – that you can solve problems in unique ways. While the Flowbee might not be the greatest product ever invented, something pretty cool happens when students create their own Flowbee-like products. They learn how to solve problems.

Real problems.

The kinds of problems that are rooted in an actual context. Their products might not change the world. But the process will change their world. Over time, they will learn how to think divergently as they find unique solutions to complex problems by using limited resources. In other words, they’ll see the value in creative constraint and thinking inside the box to think outside the box. Here, students will engage in systems thinking, collaboration, and metacognition. They’ll grow into makers and creative thinkers. They’ll embrace an entrepreneurial mindset.

Don’t get me wrong. On the surface, these projects might not look all that impressive. They’ll probably look more like a Flowbee and less like a SpaceX Rocket. But that doesn’t matter. The important thing is that they will be solving real problems.

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Why We Need Real Problems

Back when I taught eighth grade, we had a word problem in our math book that asked students to imagine that they were a catcher and needed to use the Pythagorean Theorem to figure out the distance from home plate to second base before throwing out a runner.

“Couldn’t you just Google that?” a kid asked.

“Why would you?” another student chimed in. “Every Major League catcher knows the distance is 127 feet and 4 inches. Besides, by the time you Googled it, the runner would be at third base.”

This math word problem is an example of what Dan Meyer refers to as pseudo-context. It’s what happens when students use math in a way that doesn’t actually reflect any genuine context. Students are less engaged when they solve irrelevant and inauthentic problems. They begin to view the subject as irrelevant — merely another hoop to jump through on the journey toward college. Kids are naturally driven to solve problems. But when we root it into pseudo-context, they grow less curious.

For what it’s worth, I rarely saw the authentic context to math when I was a student. In my Algebra II class back in high school, I always wondered how people used it. Yes, I get it. Math should be fun for the sake of fun. But it was always so removed from actual problems that I never saw it as inherently valuable. By contrast, I fell in love with Statistics when we were asked to find the standard deviation of stats and then look at statistical and graphical illiteracy in the news within our Pre-Calculus class.

This idea of authentic problems is at the heart of problem-based learning:

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Combining Problem-Based Learning and Project-Based Learning

Although problem-based learning is different from project-based learning, there is often an overlap between the two in problem-driven PBL. The idea here is to start the project process with a problem or challenge that students must solve. Here students solve a problem by owning the entire process.

An example is a maker challenge, where you present a specific scenario that leads students into research, problem-solving, ideation, and the prototyping of a final product that solves the initial challenge.

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Other times, it’s less of a scenario and more like a specific problem. This Drone Delivery example sets tighter parameters with a specific problem. In this case, it’s “don’t let the package break.”

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With problem-driven PBL, teachers typically begin with specific concept standards and then provide more flexible options of what students design and create. Check out this blog post for a deeper look at the connection between standards and PBL. Also, if you want the full projects for both the roller coaster project and drone delivery project, you can get both of them in this ten pack of maker projects here.

What does this actually look like?

While the previous examples have focused on physical products that students engineer, problem-driven PBL can include service projects, digital products, works of art, and events. Here are a few ideas in different subject areas:

Social Studies: Students can engage in service learning projects that focus on finding specific problems in their communities and developing solutions. They might also do simulations like brokering peace or solving an environmental problem. Or they might go with an economics project where they solve a consumer problem and do a Shark Tank style pitch to entrepreneurs in the community.

Science: Students might start with an engineering challenge that then pushes them to explore the idea of biomimicry. Or they might create their own problem that they want to test in a Myth Busters type of project.

Math: Students might be given an authentic challenge, like finding the most efficient routes for a new subway system. Or they might do a Choose Your Own problem by looking at a situation and creating their own problems. They might also do a Tiny House Project (click here to download the full project).

Reading: After reading a series of novels during SSR, students could solve the problem of “Which novel deserves to become a film adaptation the most?” Or they might create their own literacy campaign by creating preview videos for books. Students could also engage in informational reading and research after they look at a specific challenge or problem. Here, they could engage in an entire media campaign to promote awareness or advocate for a solution.

Problem-driven PBL looks different with each grade level. Younger students might need simpler problems and additional scaffolds but they have a hidden advantage — they tend to be fearless in coming up with solutions and they often have higher endurance to keep trying things when they fail. Meanwhile, secondary students have the advantage of greater background knowledge and better skills.

A great litmus test for a problem is, “Do you want to solve that problem? Does it nag at you? Does it excite you?” If it’s easy to walk away, chances are it’s not a great problem. But if you find yourself coming back to the problem over and over again, it’s often the start of a great problem-driven PBL project.

Students As Problem-Solvers

A few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to work with a school in Winnipeg on a two-day design challenge. Some of the students went through the Create a Sport Challenge while others designed a pinball machine. In both cases, they were given the challenge of creating their products using limited supplies. One teacher framed the problem this way: how will you design something hands-on and active that will be so compelling people would choose to play it rather than being on their devices?

Some of the students started out skeptical. A pinball machine with cardboard and duct tape? Really? How was this connected to real learning? How did this connect to the actual skills they would need to be college and career ready? But as the first day progressed, some of the students experienced something unexpected: struggle.

Traditional schooling tends to focus on getting the right answer quickly but problem-solving forced students to work through iterations slowly with tons of mistakes. Though they were frustrated and a few of them even got angry, they were more engaged. As I walked the hallway at the end of the day, I noticed a buzz of excitement. Students talked about what things they were going to solve at home and bring in. Again, they were talking about doing homework for fun. Crazy.

Through these two days, I watched the teachers facilitate student collaboration, problem-solving, and creativity. I noticed students who began as skeptical becoming more and more excited about what they were learning. The creative constraint forced them to solve real problems in unique ways.

Getting Started with Project-Based Learning

Curious about getting started with PBL? Please leave your email address below and click the yellow subscribe button to receive the free Project-Based Learning Toolbox. This toolbox includes a set of projects and mini-projects, along with a Getting Started with PBL guide and a set of assessment resources you can use within the project-based learning framework. I will also send you a weekly email with free, members-only access to my latest blog posts, videos, podcasts and resources to help you boost creativity and spark innovation in your classroom.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Lam Nguyen says:

    Real problems indeed! Great job capturing the experience of productive struggle during those two days. We had a blast.

    As for the math examples, there might be more to this…

    For sure authentic context is important for sense-making and learning. But some math concepts are completely abstract, imagined in an empty room, their only context being connections to other mathematical truths.

    Pseudo-context is bad because kids can see through it. I would argue that authentic context that is irrelevant to them is just as bad (trying to convince kids that they should learn about mortgages because they’ll need it in the future).

    When kids do end up getting a mortgage in the future, what their high school math teacher told them won’t be what sticks in their minds. It would be any foundational experiences they’ve been lucky enough to have in playing around with exponential growth. If we’re being honest, that’s not what would stick either… most probably, they would learn about how mortgages work then and there in that moment when it matters (hopefully with some foundational experiences that will support them)

    When we think of math learning being ‘connected’… many people automatically think of being connected to real world context, but should it also mean ‘connected’ to other mathematical concepts so that learners can make sense of it? Can math be inherently interesting and worth learning even when it is context-free? Looking forward to thinking about this more…

    • John Spencer says:

      I agree. It’s more than just connecting it to the context. It has to be relevant to them. I also think relevance is more than just context. We find relevance in things that are odd and novel, even if they don’t connect to us directly.

      That’s why Harry Potter is relevant (even if we’re not wizards) but simply tossing Harry Potter into a bad word problem is almost worse than simply having a bad word problem.

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