Kids around the world share a common complaint about what they study in school: “When am I ever going to use this in real life?”
Good question! It’s no surprise that students learn better by doing than by sitting in desks and listening, but our educational system isn’t set up that way. That’s why mindSpark Learning’s mission is to aim for change, and produce work-ready students. We’re doing it by connecting educators with community and industry leaders. Together, they’ll create an environment where they can work together to develop scenarios that will promote accelerated learning and challenge students with real-life problems.
What is Problem-based Learning?
Supporting Students with Authentic Problems from Industry
Traditional educational models involve teaching concepts through lectures, textbooks, etc., and then testing students on their ability to remember what they’ve been taught. In more modern classrooms, teachers assign students projects where they can apply the concepts they’ve learned.
According to Cornell University, problem-based learning (PBL) turns that on its head, presenting the problem first and supporting students while they learn by solving it. In addition to bringing the real world into the classroom—answering the question children have been asking for generations—it’s based on collaboration, and the entire community has a role.
The Student’s Role
Working in groups, students are presented with a real-world problem before they’ve been taught the related concepts. So instead of practicing what they’ve learned through lectures and textbooks, they figure it out as they go. Any resources they may need are provided, but it’s the students’ job to take the initiative and use them.
They will start by defining the problem, assessing what they know about it. This includes identifying all the factors that contribute to it, and determining what they don’t know and need to find out.
After deciding what would be considered a successful solution, students can construct their own path to achieve one. Problem-solving means organizing their team and assigning roles, accessing tools and resources and testing solutions. Finally, students report their findings, and often present them to a panel of industry experts that will provide feedback on their solutions.
In addition to real-world activities that make classroom learning relevant, problem-based learning also helps students develop essential skills that are paramount to career readiness:
Ability to work both independently and as part of a team
Oral and written communication
Explaining concepts and applying them to real-world examples
Recognizing when additional research is needed and knowing how to conduct it
The Teacher’s Role
As with most simulation activities, the facilitator’s role is vital for connecting the exercise to real life. First, they need to decide what they want students to learn. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is constructing a “debrief” that will lead students into drawing those conclusions for themselves. It’s a good idea to have questions ready in case students have a hard time getting started and to wrap up loose ends, but it’s often best to let the students lead the debriefing discussions. They’ll often come up with observations that are surprisingly insightful.
Examples and resources
The specific design of a problem-based learning activity depends on many things, including both the scope of the material and the age of the students.
So, it’s important for the teacher to determine the topic and scope of the exercise. It should be big enough to present a challenge and encourage accelerated learning, but not so big that students are overwhelmed and come to believe that the goal is unachievable. Note that a single topic -- global climate change, for example -- can be broken down into projects of a variety of scopes, from the development of alternate sources of fuel to developments in agriculture. So a second-grade class, for example, might tackle the problem of food waste in the school cafeteria while a high school class might work on food waste due to inefficiencies in the global supply chain. However, it’s important to remember that when students in higher grade levels can’t solve a problem, often their younger counterparts can because they’re able to approach the problem without any preconceived notions on how it should be solved.
Here are links to some examples for all grade levels:
Another crucial step in creating real-world problem-solving scenarios is to secure the involvement of industry professionals who have solved real-world problems.
In fact, industry is quite honestly the heart of the model. They are the ones providing the problems to classrooms. In other words, successful problem-based learning models ensure that the problem is provided directly from industry, rather than educators sourcing the problem themselves.
These are some of the reasons why that’s so important:
When industry provides educators and students with a specific problem they’re currently trying to solve, instead of educators sourcing the problem from industry themselves, total buy-in is ensured. Furthermore, it also means the problem is authentic, and that the solutions are legitimate thus closely mimicking what industry does in the real world.
In the working world, real-world problems are open-ended and unconstrained by artificial rules, like making students switch roles and areas of expertise throughout the project. No manager will step in and tell an IT expert that it’s his turn to play the role of product manager, making sure the product meets customer needs.
On the other hand, real-world problems are constrained by obstacles like cost, existing technology, laws and regulations, talent, etc. Coming up with an ingenious solution won’t solve a real-world problem if the technology needed to support it isn’t there yet, but it can at least begin the process toward solving that problem.
Site visits led by industry experts help students visualize the problem they’re trying to solve. They can, for instance, see first-hand a bottleneck in a production line, ask questions about what’s causing it and find out what’s already been tried.
Having an industry expert there to point those things out can be a real eye-opener for students used to projects constrained only by the teacher’s rules. And the more closely the industry expert is involved, the more the students will learn.
Industry experts, for example, can provide unique insights into current work environments, in various fields, that students can use as fodder when learning more about the careers they may seek after leaving school. Furthermore, their expertise on panels, where groups of students pitch their ideas and solutions, is always valued as it pushes students to think outside the box, and constantly seek the best solution. Experiences like these provide lasting lessons in the dynamics that comprise work environments, lessons that students will carry with them throughout their education and eventual careers.
Problem-based Learning Can Ensure We Have the Work-Ready Employees We Need for Our Bright Future
Preparing for an Uncertain Future Workforce
Educators continue to be the lever for producing work-ready students, and strategies like problem-based learning will prepare these students for a modern workforce that is likely to be driven by technology, automation and constant change. Industry leaders know this, and education leaders know this as well.
What exactly are the problems that will need solving by today’s bright young minds? Take the UN Sustainable Development Goals as an example. Ending poverty, finding reliable sustainable energy sources and reducing inequality within and among countries: these are huge goals, it’s true. But if we begin equipping students to tackle difficult problems now, we might just find some innovative solutions.