Students, we have a problem

Project Based Learning:

In project-based learning, students try to answer a question — one that has relevance for them — that is greater than the immediate task at hand.

(Project based Learning – Real World Issues Motivate Students)

Problem Based Learning

Authentic problems are primarily encountered in the learning sequence, before any preparation or study has occurred. Problems serves as a trigger for prior knowledge, which leads to the discovery of knowledge gaps. These knowledge gaps are overcome through self-directed learning.

(Transitions and Transformations in Learning and Education)

ARS Ohio processing tomato

To-MAY-toe; To-MAH-toe
By Penny Greb, USDA ARS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What’s the difference?

I explored a variety of explanations, but the biggest difference I noticed is that most problem based learning examples involve solving creative, interesting hypothetical, historical or based on real-life problems, whereas the best project based learning examples I saw focused on authentic real-world problems that students were actually expected to solve!  High Tech High’s Africa project blew me away.  At our school, I think we tend to do more problem based learning than project based learning, but I would love to see more project-based learning that ends with a problem-solving product.

Honestly though, this semantical discussion is silly.  Why not just have students do projects to solve real world problems and call it Learning?

Photo by Flickr user thekenyeung CC NC-ND 2.0

Photo by Flickr user thekenyeung CC NC-ND 2.0

I think the most exciting way our students get involved with real world problem solving is through our CAS and MiddleCAS programs. We have students who are working to bring Operation Smile to Angola, working to Stop Child Trafficking Now, and students who started an organization called Babushi Nation to alleviate child poverty.  These three initiatives are particularly compelling because they are completely the brain children of students with little to no push or support of the school beyond a CAS framework that requires service time and a supervising teacher to guide you through the process.

From a teaching and learning standpoint, a big step I’d like to see our school make is to engage with a specific charity or area of need in our community. The above examples I shared are powerful examples of students choosing a cause they feel passionate about and making a difference. I think, though, that if our school engaged with a limited number of specific charities,the faculty could more effectively get behind more authentic problem solving projects that will have a long term positive effect on our community.

SisterDomingasandFriendsFoundationOne of the after school activities I am involved with is Casa das Crianças, an orphanage run by Sister Domingas about an hour from our school. Around fifty children live there full time with another approximately 60 (this number fluctuates) that are regular after school visitors because their parents are working or unable to care for them full time. I arrange for our students to visit the orphanage throughout the school year to play with the children. Several of my colleagues arrange fundraisers an coordinate other activities to benefit Casa das Crianças. The next step out school could take is to commit to an official partnership with Casa das Crianças and look for ways to better the lives of these children through the learning of our children.  Off the top of my head, I’ve got lots of ideas, but the sky is the limit:

  • building a pump to bring up water instead of hauling it with a bucket
  • planning a garden space for the newly acquired lot next door
  • redesigning the small library/study room to build more effective shelving and study spaces
  • writing proposals to raise money for their needs
  • creating age appropriate play buckets to teach young children how to play
  • Developing promotional videos about the needs of the children and sharing them through social media to raise money and awareness

Of course, my ideas are not as important as the ideas of the children who live there and the adults who work there, as they are the ones who have an in depth knowledge of their need.

Technology’s Role

Photo stolen from PCGamer's article on Minecraft's Block by Block partnership with the UN

Photo stolen from PCGamer’s article on Minecraft’s Block by Block partnership with the UN

There are SO many ways technology can support either form of PBL, because at the core of modern problem solving is some form of technology, whether it’s through using social media to connect with others, to do research, or to design a solution to a specific problem. Many of our students are already using  social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to promote their causes. I’d love to see our school mimic the UN& Minecraft Block by Block partnership use Minecraft to design spaces at Casa das Crianças or abandoned lots in Luanda.  I think I’ve said it in every post during Course 4, but it bears repeating:

Technology is just a tool to support authentic teaching and learning.