What's Your Problem? PBL visual note drawn using Adobe Ideas on iPad by Nicki Hambleton

What’s Your Problem? PBL visual note drawn using Adobe Ideas on iPad by Nicki Hambleton

Ask Seek Find

When I was at school the biggest problem I remember trying to solve was the Rubic cube. For weeks my friends and I would get so far in completing several of the coloured sides then be stumped. There was no internet, YouTube demonstrations, spoilers or instructions in completing the puzzle, only our brains and trial and error. I cannot quite remember whether I eventually finished it through methodology or just sheer luck but the next step in my circle of friends was how quickly you could complete it.
Photo Credit: electricnude via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: electricnude via Compfight cc

In my school, however, learning in class was quite different. We were there to learn facts and figures, answers, equations, grammar, painting, music notation or, in PE, how to do the hurdles. Today’s hurdles for our students are greater and more complex than in my day.
Projects, blogs, labs, book clubs, journals. So many processes and so little time…
When do we give students the time to pose their big questions? Questions like: Where will I use algebra? What happens when it thunders? Why can’t we time travel? I remember a great book I got for Christmas one year called WHY, a fabulous book my mother still has on her shelf that can answer a multitude of questions a youngster may have. I think the equivalent of it on amazon these days is the Big book of why (or How) by Time, for kids.

But what is the Question?

Questioning is an important part of a child’s education and asking the right questions is the key.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”  Voltaire

Photo Credit: Editor B via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Editor B via Compfight cc

Previously, when I worked in MYP departments, essential questions were the backbone of the unit of work. They opened thoughts and began conversations. Students grappled with the context of the unit and the Big Idea that would help them to unravel not only what they were studying but also why. It is a practice we have continued at UWCSEA with both Frank Curkovic and I having taught MYP for many years, Frank in Japan and me in both Ghana and Italy. Together we have added Essential questions throughout our units across Middle School Visual Art and, despite time being tight when teaching a class once a week, I know that it helps to ground the unit firmly in what we believe to be the root of knowledge. This way students can see the meaning for their work and how Art fits in the whole scheme of things and make sense of it.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Albert Einstein

It seems to me that questioning is a fundamental part of learning and that this practice is not new at all. Elementary teachers use questioning throughout their daily routines, as do IB Science teachers. Inquiry based learning is an important part of the IB. But how often do we ask our students what questions they have? I mentioned before the weekly practice of Carl Jenkins, a music teacher at UWCSEA who asks students to pose their question on a google doc at the end of the lesson that helps him to know what they are struggling with or want to know more about in readiness for the following lesson. I love this simple idea and I am adopting it in earnest using Google Forms in order to drive the lesson starters and check in with the level of learning and problems students are facing. With our school well underway in piloting Teamie as our Learning Platform this will eventually make the process far more transparent and easy to manage in real-time open forums. Being married to an IB Physics teacher I see questioning at the forefront of Science topics. Could this student generated practice filter into all year groups and across all disciplines?

“Indeed, the only truly serious questions are ones that even a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limit of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.” Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Projects vs Problems

Throughout my years of teaching in different schools and countries and in observing the teaching methodologies of my colleagues I have noticed many students are set projects, often in groups, to work on over a given timeframe. These projects are usually multi faceted and governed by the current theme or topic being covered in class. It seems to be a usual practice in schools around the world. Often they have a prescribed outcome and a step by step method in which to get there along with an accompanying rubric or assessment matrix. Yet, of what benefit are these projects to students? Are they meaningful, current, relevant? Do they teach students the skills and mindset necessary for success? Perhaps the original concept by John Dewey and the idea of setting a real world problem or designing a tangible project or being guided by an open-ended question has in many cases been lost somewhere along the way.
In UWCSEA, Grade 6 undertake a fabulous Humanities unit learning about natural disasters and geographical formations resulting in the making of an impressive model, for example of a Tsunami or volcano. I understand the value and contextual nature of the unit yet not the outcome – model making? Often the students return to class with spectacular results and having spent weeks perfecting the shape construction, textures and details but I am not sure of the learning that has gone on. Is a model the most effective way to understand the concept of geographical features or occurrences? Why not a simulation or diagram?  This perhaps seems strange coming from an Art teacher!
When I was teaching MYP a fundamental part of the units was to have meaning and context. The unit grew around the essential questions and the Big Idea. Yet they were still set by the teacher. These real-world problems being set demanded deep thinking from the students guided by the teacher.
Norbert de Graaff on The Noun Project

Norbert de Graaff on The Noun Project

Back in January 2014, John Larmer wrote an article on Edutopia about the different types of “based-learning”. Over the years there have been many twists on the original concept, from challenge based to design based learning. He refers to BIE’s 8 Essential Elements of PBL. Yet all fall under the umbrella of inquiry led learning. Larmer sets out a clear distinction between project and problem based learning with project based often being centred in post 16 education and being more multidisciplinary, compared to problem based in single subjects and being shorter in length. He documents the typical steps in problem-based learning demonstrated similarly here by Maastricht University:
The narrated animation clearly sets out to explain the concept, procedure (7 Jump), gained skills and the possible problems with PBL. It re emphasises the need in schools for basic skills in communication, thinking as well as listening.

The 4 Cs

Spinning off from Larmer’s article and Maastricht’s video, I find an interesting write up by Robert Kaplinsky on implementing PBL. The article is a great source of further information, particularly if you are a Maths teacher and Kaplinsky shares his thoughts on the four Cs on which a teacher should focus on: Communication, Curiosity, Critical Thinking and Content Knowledge. Kaplinsky refers to Dan Meyer’s TED talk “Math class needs a makeover”, and quotes him saying,
“What problem have you solved ever, that was worth solving, where you knew all of the given information in advance? Or you didn’t have a surplus of information and you had to filter it out? Or you didn’t have insufficient information and had to go find some? I’m sure we all agree that no problem worth solving is like that.”
How can we apply this thinking and strategy to our daily practice? How might we encourage more curiosity in our Middle School and High School lessons? My son, working on his iGCSE Design Technology project had to search for a problem to solve, investigate and develop possible solutions. Being a keen guitarist, he decided on a guitar stand for limited spaces, functional yet aesthetic and his thinking followed clear guidelines which form the backbone of Design Technology.
This process of problem finding continues on into the IB Diploma Group 4 project, a multi discipline Science driven practical activity set over 10 hours. This project brings together the different disciplines of the subject, collaborating in teams to investigate and suggest solutions to Science problems. Students formulate large, almost unanswerable questions to investigate, research and experiment.
This seems to be a perfect combination of these 4 Cs, developing deeper content knowledge through critical thinking, collaboration and curiosity into the problem either given or proposed.
Photo Credit: Kurayba via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Kurayba via Compfight cc

The most interesting part for me from Larmer’s article concludes that both PBLs start with open-ended questioning, in real world contexts and with student independence and inquiry at the heart.
With this in mind, I return to my learning over the past months in COETAIL and to my own classroom at UWCSEA. How do I use PBL currently and what can I do to incorporate it authentically into the existing curriculum for maximum benefit to my students?
Michelle Cordy on Hack the Classroom in November 2014 shares her 6 ideas to start you off in inquiry and PBL: Using a factoid to start discussion, Pushing thinking further through probing questions (Thinking routines), slowing down, noticing thinking, feeding forward and using non-fictions texts.
How might you incorporate these into your classroom?

Design Thinking

Inspired by John Rinker and his many workshops on Maker Spaces, it is fascinating to see so many adults enjoy the prospect of just making, tinkering and playing. So too do students love this freedom to create and this, I feel, is at the heart of Design Thinking. Dropping in on the extensive Storify of the Design Thinking Twitter chat, hosted by Pana Asavavatana, Joe Sergi and Tosca Killoran a few weeks ago, I realise that often Art and Design teachers naturally teach in a PBL manner. Design Thinking, in its nature is cyclical and, working through problems we think we have a solution. Yet delving deeper, it gives forth to further developments.
Twitter Chat: Design Thinking December 9th 2014

Twitter Chat: Design Thinking December 9th 2014

The first question asked on the Twitter Chat gave forth to many interpretations on What is Design Thinking and there was no doubt that it was a powerful and beneficial methodology for our students today. The conversation online ebbed and flowed opening many ideas for justifying its place in education and I particularly appreciated the moment when the discussion sidetracked to Introverts and extroverts, again from Heather McKay‘s tweet:

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 17.30.47Why should all learning be group based? Not every student works best in a team and this is an important consideration we need to be aware of with PBL – the balance between group and individual work.
When I first started teaching the Creative Cycle, as it was known then, followed a similar format and Design Thinking can take this more formal approach as in Technology MYP:

It is through this kind of process that PBL seems most clearly connected with. We need to create a culture of thinking if we are to best serve the citizens of the future. My mind drifts to Harvard’s Project Zero and its Visible Thinking Routines.

Creativity and 20%

In Ewan Mcintosh’s TEDxLondon talk “What’s Next” he asks us to encourage and teach our students to find the problems, then solve them not to spoon feed them. He talks about the world needing Problem Finders yet still I find students, often higher up the school at IB level wanting to be given the answers, not to search for them. Yet some years ago Dan Pink told us in his book “A Whole New World” that the creative ones will be the successful ones in the future, the entrepreneurs, the thinkers, the ones who look for the problems, develop these ideas and take the world forward just innovators such as Steve Jobs did.
Photo Credit: rickz via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: rickz via Compfight cc

Employees at Google have one day a week dedicated to their own new idea or fixing, idea developing or problem finding, known as Google 20%. Google’s 20% time is a feature I would love to bring into every classroom, for students to work on their passions not driven by any assessment criteria, rubric or text book. Through this we can nurture and cultivate true creativity and see that design thinking has its future firmly locked in our youngsters, ultimately the most innovative members of our society. Many schools have already taken Google’s concept onboard, collectively known as genius hour. In Michael Schrage’s article on Harvard Business Review, “Just how valuable is Google’s 20% time?” he asks “do curiosity-driven and/or passion-driven initiatives lead to measurably better innovation outcomes?” It is interesting to read about the changes at Google, from shutting down the intrapreneurial playground Google Labs to Google X, the moonshot research lab that gave forth to Google Glass. I can’t help but recall again Jeff Utecht’s Moonshot Learning 2 Talk. What would your moonshot be? What would you develop, design, find or solve if you had 20% time?

Next Steps

Photo Credit: J. C. Merriman via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: J. C. Merriman via Compfight cc

I am wondering now in anticipation of, not only Course 5 but my teaching in general, how to combine the idea of gamification with problem solving (or problem finding!). Could a unit be a series of problems or quests that determine which direction next? What are the potential big questions students want answers to in my subject? And how can I incorporate more creative time and free thinking to search for those problems in a rapidly changing world?
How is this going to be possible in a 75 minute Art lesson once a week?
Now there is a problem just waiting to be solved……!
I remember a recent conversation with Joe Teft about the next steps. As I recount my woes of indecision and too many ideas brewing, he tells me that “problem setting often means we don’t know what the outcome will be”. He is clearly a wise thinker, but for a Graphic designer that is quite a scary concept! I am going to need a bit of coaching to help me to answer these and other pressing questions.
“Every problem is a gift – without problems we would not grow.” Anthony Robbins
So to the final step, Course 5 – what will I do, how will I decide what best to do for both me and my students?
Now that is a big problem.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Albert Einstein

  1. I love the images you made. They inspired me.

  2. cynthia fernandes says:

    Dear Nicky,

    As I was reading your article, what kept popping into my brain was the word alignment.. and from my perspective, I see that perhaps your big question through this article, is, authenticity. And it’s a great question, one that i feel most if not all, teachers can relate to, and some resonate at a deeper level than others. I have taught both PYP and standards based curriculum at the preschool level, and even at this beginning stages of their learning journey, the challenge remains the same.. how do we truly personalize learning and make sure that truly, there is no child left behind, in understanding the big picture. I have found a way to make my peace with this tug of war in my heart and soul about the authenticity and maintaining the integrity of what my understanding of true education is, ( bringing the children to the threshold of their own creative minds and then trusting them to find the wings to take them even further on their journey.. the basis of it all being having an innate sense of confidence in themselves as learners, and that way is to honor each inquiry coming from the mind of a four year old, and even if we cannot get to it right away, to find a way to make this happen. We have a wonder wall, where no matter what the question is, it can go up and we look at it and see if we have an easy answer, or what other means we can use to find it. I was indeed truly impacted by this statement that you shared in your blog, when I read it in my teenage years: “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” Voltaire.

    I think we as educators do have to jump the gun and lead by example. The one thing I do almost every day with my son when we sit for dinner is ask him, did you ask any question you did not know the answer to today? A couple of months into it, and finally I started getting some answers from him! He knew I would ask him that at night and he started thinking of what question he could ask for the day to share the answer to with me. As you said, it’s all about creating habits of the mind.
    I loved this talk on TED about why we ask questions! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9hauSrihYQ

    Lovely graphics and images, I loved your post and hope to read some more!



    • Nicki Hambleton says:

      Thank you so much Cynthia for spending the time to read and reply to my post. I am so grateful for your words and, like you I am still searching for that perfect balance. The balance between instruction and independence, listening and questioning and home and school life. Even after 24 years of teaching I still have these out of balance! I love the TED talk and also the daily questions at the table you described. I saw a great little article about a Conversation Jar – have you seen it? I love the concept both for home (even with a teenager!) and for school. I am certain that there are many different versions of the same concept out there but this struck a chord with me and the randomness of the questions seem to engage all. Take a look and let me know if you might find it useful: http://momastery.com/blog/2015/04/24/key-jar/
      Thank you again for stopping by

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