Whose problem is it?

Posted on January 3rd, 2012 by David Coffey

“Education systems, teachers, school districts all over the world are going crazy about problem-based learning – nothing like a good problem to solve. But they are looking at the wrong bit of it. The thing we’re neglecting is to find a generation of problem finders.”

The above quote comes early in Ewan McIntosh’s talk at TEDxLondon. This really connects with my goal to foster sustainable learning. Here is the entire talk (it is well worth the eight minutes).

I want learners to come up with their own problems – to be able to answer, “Now what?” for themselves. Most times when I try to implement a problem finding curriculum, however, two issues interfere: trust and control. You see, I know what they need to know because I know what I learned and how it has helped me. How can I be sure learners will follow the correct path, find the right problems, if I do not lead them either explicitly or implicitly?

Here is a good example. Over the winter holiday break, I went on a hike through a state managed forest. Along the trail were a variety of signs describing interesting facts about the trees and forest management. The sign below was of particular interest to me.

I thought it had a lot of potential for use in a course on teaching and learning middle school mathematics that I am scheduled to lead this semester. It would provide a great context for the geometry section as I asked my learners to make Biltmore and Merritt Rule Sticks using the information provided. The problem was perfect, but as Ewan points out, it was also mine.

Given my interest in sustainable learning, I would be better off owning the problem myself and using it as a demonstration. It would offer an opportunity for thinking aloud about identifying problems in contexts that interest me – the first step in the gradual release of responsibility. Then, with my support, the learners could begin to find their own problems in whatever math content we must address. By the end of the course, hopefully, the learners could find problems for themselves.

With awareness and effort, I have gotten better at letting my learners lead the way. Every success allows me to trust them a little bit more and give up trying to control the curriculum. Maybe 2012 will be the year I learn to really let go.

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