Remember those textbook questions at the very end of the chapter that were never assigned because your teacher wanted you to complete the multiple choice and true-and-false and fill-in-the-blank questions “first”?

Tim-text-2The questions were always under headings like “Extend Your Knowledge” or “Display your Learning” or “Digging Deeper,” or something similar. Those questions always intrigued me, first off because we never got to them and I always wondered why. (Sort of like the last chapters of the book: Poor chapter 26. You look like fun, but we won’t get to you this year.) I also was intrigued because those questions, at least to me, were a lot more interesting than the ones that merely required me to look up the answer a few pages back.

Instead of answering questions like “What cities did the United States drop an atomic bomb on to end the war with Japan?” (look back four pages, there is the answer) the Extend Your Knowledge questions asked questions like “Was President Truman correct in ordering the Army to drop the atomic bomb on Japan? Defend your answer.”

That kind of question had some meat to it. I could answer any way I wanted to and still be correct. All I had to do was make an argument that supported my position! I had to understand the information AND I had to make a decision on my own! That was a question! It had meat, it had ethical dilemmas, it actually asked me what I thought about something instead of just asking me to be a human copy machine.

Alas, we rarely got to those questions unless we finished ahead of the other students and were assigned them as punishment for being precocious. We learned early on that being fast was a bad thing, so we learned the skill of taking our time and doing the low level cognitive questions slowly enough to match the teacher’s (and the bell’s) rhythm. Every year, in every class, in every discipline.

Years and years of low level questions, followed by low level questioning on tests. That carried into college as well, because the same companies that wrote the K12 textbooks were writing the college texts. Don’t believe that this is still happening? Check out this End of Chapter page from an Anatomy and Physiology college text from Pearson. The really good questions, squeezed over in the corner, are called “Critical Thinking.” Some things die hard.

Jumping to the end of the chapter

Years later, after I grew up and when I was getting my bearings as a middle school science teacher, those “think” questions started to come back to my mind as I was assigning work to my students.

tim-textbk-1Nothing had changed in the textbooks. The low level questions were first at the end of the chapter, and the higher ordered skills questions were always just outside the time window of the class. That bothered me a lot because I could tell that, given the time, even the most challenged of my students were able to complete the multiple-choice and true-or-false and fill-in-the-blank questions without producing much brain sweat.

So I started making an effort to ask my students the kinds of questions found at the end of the chapter. I would assign those questions first or I would create my own when the ones in the book didn’t dig deep enough. One I remember in particular came about during a unit on genetics. I posed the following dilemma to my 8th graders:

“You are medical doctor and a genetics counselor. You have been referred by an obstetrician a couple that has a later-in-life pregnancy and asked to perform an amniocentesis to make sure there are no genetic issues with the baby. The results come back and you find that the baby tested positive for an autosomal recessive disorder (ARD), a condition that is passed along to the child when both the mother and father have the mutated gene. However, you note that the father is not a carrier of the gene. As a genetic counselor, do you tell both the wife and the husband or just the wife of the child’s condition?”

WOW! You should have seen the reactions that middle school kids had to that question. I had a battle of the sexes break out right in front of me. Women’s rights! Men’s rights! Baby rights! What was the law? Who had the right to know about this? (For anyone who hasn’t quite figured out why the question would cause a controversy, the husband could not have been the father of the child because he didn’t carry the gene.)

That was a great question because it not only required students to know about recessive and dominant genes and how genetic material is passed from generation to generation, it involved science applied in the “real world” and a moral dilemma that had to be solved. An ethical consideration if you will, just like the Truman/Atomic Bomb question over in the history classroom. It was messy learning: there was no “correct” answer. Students had to justify their answers based on a rubric.

Did those kids remember that genetics unit. You bet they did. Years later, I had some former students come up to me and remind me of the arguments that took place in that class!

Problem vs. Project Based Learning 

Perhaps that experience is part of the reason why I am more drawn to Problem Based Learning that I am to Project Based Learning. The two teaching strategies are often talked about interchangeably, and Wikipedia offers the same acronym for both: PBL. For my purposes, I’m going to refer to Problem Based Learning as PrBL and Project Based Learning as PBL. One obvious difference in the two approaches has to do with the “hands-on” aspects of PBL, which can easily overshadow the dilemmas that are characteristic of true problem-solving.

Tim-coop-fullWhen I first started exploring Problem Based Learning back in the early 1990’s, following the works of Bill Stepien and Shelagh Gallagher and the IMSA school in Illinois, I was immediately drawn to the messiness of the PrBL questions. Instead of having pre-defined outcomes as in so much PROJECT based learning (we build a bridge), students have to think more about real-life outcomes associated with the PROBLEM (where should the bridge be built, what kind of bridge should go there?). Instead of just thinking in terms of the bridge as the end product, students in Problem Based units would also consider the ethical dilemmas of where the bridge should go. Who would be affected? What are the environmental or financial impacts? Is a bridge the best answer? Maybe there are other solutions.

Problem Based Learning puts kids into real, adult roles. The PrBL situations require a teacher to be a true facilitator (something Gary Stager hates to even think about, by the way, but that’s another blog entry).

Life is messy, and so are well-constructed PrBL units. Most problems that we come across in life — in work, in politics, in religion, in our families — have no single correct answer. Think of the last true problem you had to solve in your life. Who should I vote for? What house should I buy? Who should I marry? What church should I attend? What car is best for me? American, Chinese or Italian tonight? There was no ONE CORRECT answer. There were probably multiple correct answers, some more correct than others maybe,

Tim-LifePractice-sampleGood PrBL units are drawn from the headlines or real life situations. Finding the problem is easy. Writing a good Problem Based Learning unit takes time and effort.

Some are trying. In their LifePractice PBL concept, Kevin Honeycutt and Ginger Lewman have sets of PBL cards that mash up Problem and Project Based learning — hands-on projects built around “driving questions.” While the mashup can be confusing (is it Problem or Project), the idea is good. You need to start somewhere.

PrBL and PBL units take time – I get that

Before you dismiss this post as the ramblings of an out-of-touch central office administrator who doesn’t understand the demands of standards-based teaching in a high stakes testing era, let me lay your worries aside: I get it.

• I get it that a good PrBL will take time to teach. Units often take more time than “traditional” lessons.

• I get it that PrBL is harder to grade because there is typically no single correct answer (think, rubric).

• I get it that you have kids working on different things at the same time, and that whole-class teaching gets thrown out the window.

• I get it that kids who have never been exposed to PrBL (or PBL) probably won’t “get it” at first and might rebel against a teaching technique that requires them to work as hard as the teacher.

• I get it that you have to trust that kids will be able to make the connections from the PrBL unit to the standardized tests.

• I get it that involving “ethics” in a curricula is a risky proposition. Some people have issues with ethics in schools.

I get all of it.

But we need to collectively get this as well:

• Society has been calling for a revolution in education for some time now. Problem Based Learning can provide a major chunk of that revolutionary change.

• We have been calling for teaching techniques that easily assimilate 21st century skills into lessons. PrBL allows for easily integrating 21st century skills.

• We’re being told that succeeding with Common Core standards requires critical thinking and problem-solving. Note the “p” word.

• We need to start thinking about ways of flipping the classroom that truly means flipping the way we teach — not just having kids watch videos at night.

Let’s face it. For generations, we have almost completely bypassed the development of true problem solving skills in our curricula. Now it’s something that the “real world” is clamoring for us to incorporate into our lessons. (How many times have heard the phrase “We need problem solvers!”) And it’s something that’s likely going to be incorporated in the testing, not very far down the road.

We have also left out ethical considerations in curricula. It’s not about telling kids what to think. It’s about getting them TO think when it comes to issues of right and wrong.  This, I think, is a goal that Problem Based Learning can readily help us reach.

I think we need to start flipping those questions at the end of the chapters. Let’s work up the courage to teach the hard stuff.

About the author
Tim Holt, a 28-year public school educator, has been both a science teacher and urban district administrator. He is currently Director of Instructional Technology in the El Paso (TX) ISD. Through it all, he has been an experimenter with technology, seeking ways to make learning more engaging and meaningful. In 2012, he received the Making IT Happen Award from the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA). Tim lives in Canutillo TX with his family and blogs at Holt Think.