Problem-Based Learning and Persuasion

Me. Every day.

I learned early on in my teaching career to let the kids have the “stage” and play my role as the backstage manager/learning facilitator. But, before that Eureka! moment, I would teach so intensely throughout the day (totally teacher-centered) that I’d be dragging myself out of the building with fumes of energy left in my tank. It was mentally draining and physically exhausting no matter how much I loved it. Eventually though, I got hip to the game that is problem-based learning (PBL) and started revamping my lesson plans to reflect this inquiry-rich student leader environment.

At first, I was at a loss because PBL seemed to be more easily applicable to math, science, and even social studies, but I struggled with how to use it in my English classroom. My undergrad observation and student teaching experiences, while some of the best times of my life, were mostly representative of the traditional approach to instruction where the teacher controlled and lectured while the students sat and “absorbed.” Working in a Title I environment and with upper grades, I realized quickly that the lecture approach wasn’t always as efficient or effective.

What’s fun and interesting about literary devices and vocabulary

What we teach must connect to what they live.

I knew that no matter what I chose, I needed the connection and relevance between my content and my students’ lives to be undeniable. I had already started answering the “Why is this important” question before it could roll off their little tongues, so all I needed was an awesome project to take my class to the next level.

Coincidentally, my campus in Brazil was participating in the Association of American Schools in South America Educator Conference at the time, and the keynote speaker was Lee Crockett, a creative thinker whose ideas on blending relevance and learning piqued my interest. A teacher friend and I went to his breakout session, and it was there that I had one of the most important epiphanies of my teaching career.

If I use student voice more effectively, I can have the risk-taking and real world classroom I want.

I think what I loved the most about Lee’s session was how little he directed us. He gave us a problem and let us find the solution using his Solution Fluency approach. Even when many of us failed, we were able to debrief (the last stage of Solution Fluency) and talk through where we went wrong, how we would’ve done it better, and what we learned from the experience.

The biggest takeaway for me had been making a conscious choice to encourage my students to THINK and SOLVE rather than sit and regurgitate.

I raced home after the conference, eager to put my newfound knowledge to good use, and designed a project that my students would later call “freaking awesome!” I’m sure it was awesome in hindsight because they lamented my lack of narrowed direction in the beginning.


The Project


The Problem

My students: “So Ms…what kind of project should we do?”

My response: “I don’t know. What do you think? What have you found?”

For almost all of their questions seeking the “right answer” from me, I responded, “Hmm. That’s a good question. What do you think?”

Eventually, they figured out what I was doing – giving them the freedom to be creative and original in their quest to demonstrate content mastery with a rubric as their guide. It took a few class periods, but they stopped depending on me to design their projects. It was refreshing to see their imaginative ideas soar and problem-solving skills develop.

The outcomes were amazing! Groups created new apps, sophisticated engineering contraptions, and other never before seen products, and they showed what they’d learned about rhetoric and persuasion in their presentations, which had been my focus from the start. I had a panel of my co-workers act as the hiring committee. They asked questions just like an interview panel would and provided feedback to every group. I think the best part was seeing my ninth graders in business attire! About a week later, the kids were asking me when the next project would be. I nearly fainted.

The Six D’s of Solution Fluency – Define, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Debrief – gave me a fresh way to teach my students how to problem solve, create, and demonstrate and a much more interesting way to assess student learning.

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