Have you ever gone to the doctor with a rather vague problem? The kind of problem that has no obvious solution?
“Doctor, my elbow hurts.”
“Doctor, I have a runny nose.”
“Doctor, look at this rash.”
From that ambiguity, we expect our physicians to narrow down something that could have a thousand origins to the one specific cause, then make it all better with one specific treatment. It is not just physicians that we expect to have uber-problem solving skills either. Many of the people we run into in life are asked by us to solve our hazy dilemmas.
We tell the mechanic: “My car is making a funny noise, can you fix it?”
A quarterback asks: “What’s the best play to run, coach?”
We might ask a decorator: “I need help redoing this room. What can be done with it?”
We might ask friends: “What do you think is the best car for me to buy?”
Some of our ambiguous problems are mundane: “What toothpaste should I use?” or “What should I have for dinner?” On the other hand, some of our conundrums are much more life changing: “Should I get married?” which leads to “Whom should I marry?” which leads to “Should we have children?” which leads to all kinds of other ponderables. Mundane or life changing, they are all problems to be solved.
From our first activity in the morning until the last thing we do before we visit dreamland each night, we are constantly engaged in a series of problems to solve — some easy, some hard. Problem after problem after problem. Question after question after question. Simply put, life is a series of ambiguous questions to be answered. The better we are at problem solving, the better chance we have at making a proper decision when the time comes and being successful in both our personal and career pursuits.
Some of the questions we have pretty much solved long ago and have placed them into our routine of daily life: The best route to drive to work each morning, the team we should root for, even the types of food we like to eat and how much time we watch TV. But even the most routine of things that we do each day were at one time, problems to be solved. That route to work that you drove this morning was at one time a question for you to answer. Should you drive this way or that? What were the advantages of each route? This route may be shorter, but there is always a morning back-up. This route is longer, but traffic flows more smoothly. I think I will go this way. Problem solved.
So what’s this got to do with school?
Problems like these are not like problems we give our students to solve. Problems we traditionally give to students have a single correct answer (think multiple choice, true and false, and fill in the blank). We spend, an inordinate amount of time teaching students how to find the the “single-answer-that-is-the-correct-answer.” While that might be good in the short term, and easy to grade, in the long term I believe we are doing them a terrible disservice.
As one of my colleagues once stated, we might be practicing educational malpractice. By not teaching and pushing our students to develop problem solving skills, we fail to prepare them adequately for life outside of school. We are “preparing” them, in fact, for a world where the questions and answers are pre-packaged and easy to bubble in. And that world does not exist.
Problems like the ones I’ve mentioned above are called “messy problem” by some educators and “ill-structured problems” by others. Messy problems have no single, certifiably correct answer. There is no “one right way” to solve a problem like “should I get married” or “what should I study in college?” The answer is the goal, but the answer can manifest itself in many correct ways and lead to a lot of unexpected learning along the way. Ambiguity envelopes us. It begins at birth and follows us through to the last days of our lives. Start to finish, life is messy.
I love ill-structured problems. When offered in a classroom setting, they present students with real life situations and devilish dilemmas. Problem based learning, a methodology begun in the late 1960’s in medical schools in Canada (and expanded into K12 education in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s) was developed after medical experts in teaching hospitals could not understand why otherwise excellent interns froze up when real life humans were placed in front of them with real life problems (there might even be panic and bleeding).
After long investigation, if became clear to instructors that while the students were “book smart” and could recite page after page of diagnostic information from memory, most patients did not present their symptoms in a way that matched the book: “You know Doc, my elbow hurts just like the description on page 354 of the Jensen Ortho text,” said no patient ever.
We need to move away from the pedagogy of the single answer and move towards teaching the messy problems of Problem Based Learning. This is different than Project Based Learning (as I wrote about here), where the end goal is already known (and thus a single correct answer is reached in many cases). Life does not work so much like a project; human development is pretty much Problem Based Learning. The best outcome or solution is usually not known when the problem is presented. Sometimes it is, but not often.
In pursuit of the messy answer
Moving towards messy answers to messy problems is not just a matter of shifting the way we test (although that’s a messy problem in itself). It’s first and foremost a shift in the way we expect our teachers to teach and our students to learn. We cannot in all honesty think that students can possibly be prepared to solve life’s messy problems when for years all they have been taught to do was look for the single best answer on the standardized test. (Watch out for those distractors!)
Consider these current very messy problems now facing the nation:
How should education be reformed?
What is the best way to handle gun violence?
What should be done about how the government spends money?
What should be our response to global climate change?
And on and on and on…
We have seen what happens when groups of people have little or no problem solving skills: Nations go to war. Religions fight. Congress cannot talk to the President. Gun owners cannot talk to gun control advocates. Husbands cannot talk to wives. Students bully each other. All of these snarls and snafus are directly the result of a pervasive lack of problem solving skills among the populace.
When problem solving (and its twin sister critical thinking) isn’t business as usual, then charlatans and conmen can easily manipulate a situation. If you don’t believe that this is true, consider the current highest rated show on cable’s History Channel, “Ancient Aliens,” a program that is neither historically accurate nor even close to being scientifically factual. Yet millions watch this show which, somehow, every week, links obscure cave drawings, religious texts, nut job theories and tin foil conspiracies into stories of how our ancestors were the spawn of human/alien mating. (Great-great grandma was a Klingon. Get used to it.)
As our students grow up and enter adult life and work, those with a lack of problem solving skills will be at a distinct disadvantage to those who can solve problems and detect flimflam and flummery. And those who realize there are many “correct” ways to solve problems will have a great advantage over those who believe there’s a single answer for each and every question.
Let’s start reform here!
Education reform — a topic that we have now been discussing since forever, according to education-historian-turned-reform-skeptic Diane Ravitch — must actually begin somewhere. I suggest this: Let us take a good hard look at the curricula and standards that are now out there. Let us agree on a common set of goals, and let us at least consider the idea of making true problem-based learning part of the standard curricula for grades K to 12 and beyond.
Yes, it’s messy and harder to teach. Yes it takes more time. But if you truly believe that the phrase hanging on the wall in your school somewhere about preparing students for the future, and how they will be future leaders, then you have to know, deep down, that just teaching kids to take tests is not preparing them for anything other than just taking tests. Nobody will pay you for that for too long.
If we can teach kids to solve messy problems before they graduate, they might not have such a hard time solving messy problems when they start running the world. Or trying to figure out what is wrong with my elbow.
(And they will start running the world, you know. That’s one question we can be pretty sure has a single answer.)
Latest posts by Tim Holt (see all)
- Problem-Based Learning: Our Brains Abhor Cliffhangers - June 6, 2013
- The Ultimate Education Reform: Messy Learning & Problem Solving - April 19, 2013
- Why Problem-Based Learning Is Better - January 10, 2013
Our difficulty is the State is pushing us towards more standardization and one answer questions so they can quantify learning and judge us as teachers…and our communities are agreeing with the State. In addition to that flaw, the one answer/standardization takes the emphasis away from LEARNING and put it on completion and compliance…get it done, take the test and move on (& forget it). We have a difficult time ahead of us, convincing the public that we (educators) actually know what is research based, pedagogically sound, best for their children’s success.
I think somewhere along the line we mixed up “easy to score” with “reflective of learning.” We need to start pushing back against the politicians that make the standardized testing policies . For instance, I always thought it was a good idea to say to any politician that makes testing rules to be able to pass with a 90 the test they are legislating…I bet that would end testing in a minute!
This article hits the nail on the head rather well…
Changing our methodology and function in the classroom to problem based learning and promoting and demanding critical thinking from our students is a huge part of the solution.
Somewhere along the line, we as a society stupidly allowed our government to get too deeply involved in our education system… As government must control, define, regulate, and standardize everything it touches (all in the name of fairness and accountability… of course), it was inevitable that our education system would end up suffering in this way.
Before this, one solution thinking was there as a rule… But, critical thinking was allowed for the brilliant few (you remember them… they’re the ones that designed our bridges, our industrial system, and sent us to the Moon…). Others were forced to understand the basics of reading, arithmetic, and writing and sent on their way to become the people that actually built the bridges, worked in the industries, and constructed the launch pads…
Today, things are quite different. Today, we want everyone of our students to be capable of designing the bridges. And we are in a pickle as we are slowly coming to realize that all of the ‘feel good’ (self-esteem above all else) thinking, combined with the government issued standardized pigeon hole testing, has really messed things up.
Now, the latest flavor of the week is Problem Based Education and Critical Thinking. And, it turns out… Finally this flavor (fad ed-speak buzzword) is actually THE RIGHT course of action! I suppose we would eventually come around to a buzzword that could (if implemented) actually work…
BUT!!!!! Changing the way we teach and creating true critical thinkers among our students does zero… Unless, we also change the way students and teachers are evaluated! Otherwise, it remains just another in a long sad line of buzzwords that accomplished nothing more than to justify the jobs of those whose job it is to justify the buzzwords.
We must teach “end of course” and get rid of both the standardized testing and the government control of the school systems with its money incentives and punishments. There are school districts across the nation that are cheating the system to get at that money! An atmosphere in school district administrations is developing that care nothing about student’s futures (actually educating our fellow humans). All that is cared for is the money and the rewards heaped upon those who by WHATEVER MEANS cook the books so that their schools have better numbers to report to the government… The test and its attendant benefits for the merry few (for good scores) take precedent over the lives and futures of our students, families, and our own employees. They talk a smooth seductive line at public meetings; but, NOTHING matters unless it is on “The Test”
We can teach problem solving. But, if the tests remain, the TEST will still be all that matters. Removing the test, changing the imperative to teaching to the curriculum and what needs to be learned for the end of course, AND teaching critical thinking and true open ended thinking/problem solving are the real solutions here…
You are correct. AND we need to change the tests, which create a culture of mile wide and inch deep curriculum! So how do we start our revolution?
This thoughtful post reminds us all that creation is always messy. There are two thoughts here, many independent schools, free from No Child Left Behind and the measuring that happens with all the state testing of students that our public schools face provide valuable models for problem based learning done well. That’s not to say independent schools don’t face the challenges of student success in college entrance exams, rather, many of these schools have created space to experiment and evolve good strategies for the messy learning you describe. Rather than one model that works, there are many examples of different models. Which is a reminder to us all, that one size doesn’t fit all. The challenge in transferring these experiments from independent schools to our public schools is taking an idea incubated in a particular independent school with a particular mission into a school district, a large entity with greater diversity of students and other constituents. And yet, creative public schools with visionary principals and courageous superintendents have made and are making these transfers from one to the other.
Independent schools are also involved in a variety of experiments in teacher evaluation– very few of which involve student test scores. Gone are the days of the independent school teacher as king of his classroom. Now administrators know that families demand excellence in their children’s teachers. Schools are developing a variety of different ways of measuring what an excellent teacher is and does within the school’s mission.
At our school, we continue to evolve our system of support, development and evaluation for our teachers. Just as the best learning for our students is messy and the assessment labor intensive, so too is teacher evaluation at its best a labor intensive art. In the end, the measure has to be grounded in what the school values.
That is why it is important to share what you are learning in your experiments so that others can learn from them as well. Thanks for the comments and keeping the conversation going.
It would really be great if students learned how to question the premise of some questions. That would demonstrate critical thinking.
First they must be able to come up with the question! That is why Problem Based Learning is so interesting to me: It teaches students how to come up with the questions!
The Arts! We already teach using “messy learning and problem-solving.”
YES! That is why the Arts are important (among other reasons!) So how do we get the ideas of messiness out of the arts and into the core curricular areas?
IMSA’s Problem Based Learning network has many years of experience both developing the PBL model and working to drive meaningful reform. I’m certain that contact would be welcomed! http://pbln.imsa.edu/
Steven, you are 100% correct! IMSA is an inspiration, and I have been a longtime admirer from afar from the days of Bill Stepien who if I recall was one of the founders of IMSA… Thank you for keeping the conversation and Problem Based Learning alive!
Here is someone doing what you suggest:
Thanks! I’ll check it out!
Tim, I love your ideas about ill-structured problems and problem based learning. I wonder if a place to start is by helping learners to discriminate which “problems” have one answer and which don’t. I want learners to know that some things they need to learn (decoding skills, spelling rules, math algorithms, sentence structure) do have one right answer (thought not necessarily one way to get there); and lots of things they should learn don’t have one right answer.
It seems to me that some authors suggest that only ill-structured problems are worth pursuing. Even within ill-structured problems there are basic problem solving skills/processes that are well structured that are worth learning, even if only as a starting point.
Fran, you are absolutely right, you cannot throw out the basics and expect students to be able to solve problems. For instance, you have to be able to read a map (basic skills) in order to choose the best route (Problem solving skill).
I think, however, that the basics can be woven into the fabric of PBL. For instance, if we are asking students to solve a problem like deciding if the KKK should be allowed to march in our city, that would be woven into a unit about freedom of speech…
Thanks for keeping the conversation going.
This is a good article. It is thoughtful and has merit, but it does not address a limiting reality for about half of the students in our urban schools and many, if not as many, in rural America. Education reform must start with students having stronger cognitive skills.
Education reform must actually start somewhere.
Teachers may be practicing educational malpractice by not teaching and pushing students to develop problem solving skills. We are missing a key point. Many students do not have the cognitive capacity, think core cognitive skills, to actually do critical thinking. They start school behind in processing (brain) skills and nothing in the ‘system’ provides the intensive training intervention they need to develop their skills.
It is now possible to screen the core skills of students online in 35 minutes. That gives a picture, a profile, of strengths and weak areas that need attention. When a student has weak underlying skills it does not really matter what methods or approaches teachers practice. Students, many of them, especially from under-resourced families, will still fail to read proficiently and achieve academically.
There is a problem that keeps all the other problems from being solved in school. We need to fix that one first.
Larry, you are correct. Actually, what you just wrote sounds to me very much like a PBL problem: How do create problem solvers when the basic cognitive processes are not there? So what are some of your ideas to address this? I certainly do not say Problem Based Learning is the end all be all, it is just another tool that we can use, and a powerful tool at that.
There are tons of PROJECT Based learning schools being created as we speak…do they ignore the cognitive as well? How do they address the issues?
I loved this article! It helped me realize that in homeschooling my daughter this is the type of learning we have gravitated toward naturally. Sometimes it is rather disorienting to have questions pop up that not only have no single right answer, but that may not be answerable! Things my daughter has been thinking about and reading about this year include:
–why do some wars end with countries reconciling or becoming allies, while others can’t stop the cycle of conflict?
–why have particular characters from classic fiction become fixtures of popular culture (Mr. Darcy, Frankenstein, Dracula) and not others?
–what is the difference between historical and dramatic “truth”?
–how do writers think up characters?
–why do critics seem to value drama over comedy when it comes to major awards or the making of a particular canon?
We grapple with these issues and return to them over and over. Athough it’s not something I ever could ahve planned, these questions underpin the center of what we’ve been reading, watching, and discussing for a couple of years now. I’ve been feeling a bit uncomfortable with the fact that we don’t seem to come to fixed conclusions, but your article makes me feel a lot better about the value of this messy learning.
Thanks for sharing your examples. I am writing them down as “good ideas!”
Thanks for sharing! There are tons of starters for good PBLs…The IMSA site mentioned above is a good place to go for secondary ones…
Thank you for posting this article. I have been thinking a good bit about PBL recently, but I am not sure how to implement it in my classroom. Would you consider writing a follow up piece on the more practical side of implementing PBL in a standard classroom? It would also be helpful to see some “example” problems. Since I am new to this idea, I am looking for a little direction. I teach middle school students (currently Latin but possibly changing…).
Thanks again for sharing! Looking forward to hearing your ideas…
Working on it! Thanks!
Great! Looking forward to reading it. How can I get that link when you do post?
Trying to “solve” (or address) messy problems also promotes logical and linear thinking, something today’s students struggle with as they are continually barraged with disconnected images and text (TV, videogames, tweets, FB posts). My community college composition students complete two papers, first an objective analysis of the causes or effects of a problem (such as unemployment, gun violence, other messy issues), followed by a paper proposing and defending a solution to that problem. Keeping the same topic increases the depth of their understanding. Guiding them through this process is extremely rewarding (while challenging), since there are so many “aha!” moments. By the time they complete the second paper, they are more sensitive to complexity and much more confident about process.
Nice! Now, how can we scale that method up to other courses at your community college?
The University of Delaware has had a PBL Clearinghouse for almost 15 years here: https://primus.nss.udel.edu/Pbl/
This is a peer reviewed repository of PBL problems with teaching notes in many different disciplines.
Thanks for the heads up! Okay everyone, here is a place to start!
Thanks for expressing the thoughts of many educators. I have been presenting workshops on Brain Based Learning and for the past two years have incorporated the critical thinking and problem based learning strategies. By showing how the brain best works in these areas is my focus for the next few years. I left the public schools and went into parochial because I do not have to deal with the state mandated testing. What a freedom I have working with my teachers and students on our curriculum, research based strategies for engagement and memory skills. Learning is messy and we as the educators need to take the responsibility in making sure students are allowed to have the opportunity to work through problems and find a variety of solutions.
I have always liked PBL (PROBLEM) based learning because of the emotional attachment to that the students seem to get. The brain does not like unresolved issues. I wrote about it here http://holtthink.tumblr.com/post/49195322444
Glenn, I would love to see one of your presentations! Are they posted anywhere?
Enjoyed the article and it aligns very well with the work I do as a professional developer with Inquiry By Design. Just got off a video conference call with a group of teachers this AM who are working to design quality questions from texts. Not all questions are created equal so we are helping them become more skilled at asking students the right questions to engage them in critical & deep thinking rather than the one-size fits all standardized, formulaic, boring question that no one cares about anyway. Interestingly, science teachers at our workshops (you are one too!) are the most comfortable with the inquiry approach we promoted. We are working primarily with language arts and other content areas to support teachers in setting up authentic activities that engage students by asking open-ended, many possible response type questions. It’s about teaching kids how to think, not what to think. Thanks for your article!
Yvette @ inquirybydesign.com
I think the science teachers are familiar with the approach because it parallels the Scientific Method pretty well. Hypothesis, research, test, refine, gather data, draw conclusions based on data.
I agree that messy learning, critical thinking and problems without just one answer make much more sense than boring, rote learning. Us Art Educators have already been doing this for years! I love teaching Art, because my class provides a respite from the rest of my student’s structured, Left Brain classes all day long. Most of my students are pleasantly shocked when I tell them the first day of class that in Art class there is no right answer! I emphasize Right brain thinking skills and divergent thinking skills – coming up with more that one possiblity to the problem of drawing a flower, for example. I love pointing out at the end of a unit that all the student’s were given the same assignment or problem and they all came up with a different response. My students naturally are developing their innate creative capacities. Have you considered how Arts Integration can be a powerful tool in education reform?
Indeed! Art is wonderful. So how do we get the ideas of art into the core curricular areas? We see it a little urge move from STEM to STEAM, but I wonder how committed folks are to the A (art) in STEAM?
Maybe we need the art teachers to lead the way.
Check out this PBL Ipad App!
Problem based learning focuses student learning on the investigation and resolution of messy, authentic problems. Students connect content knowledge to real world problems where the motivation to learn comes from the motivation to solve the problem
Thanks for sharing and keeping the conversation going.