Be honest: How much of what you learned as a student has truly benefited you beyond the classroom? Now think about your own lessons as a teacher: Are you really helping your students to become real-world problem solvers?
As a teacher, implementing project-based learning and real-world problems in my lessons is my personal nemesis. I understand the theory, but the application doesn’t come naturally for me. It’s a constant challenge, but an essential one.
Motivating Students with Real-World Issues
There’s no denying that students are motivated by authentic issues. Show them a practical need to master a particular skill and they’ll buy into the need to study core knowledge more quickly. This, in turn, makes our jobs easier as students can see a purpose to their school work.
Think about the traditional approach to school lessons: We tend to develop abstract skills and concepts in students at a young age and move towards the concrete as they get older rather than the other way around. By the time students reach the concrete, we’ve already lost the interest of many of them.
MIT mathematician Seymour Papert makes a strong argument for inverting this traditional approach and starting kindergarten and elementary school students with hands-on problems that are tangible. This approach, which is central to project-based learning, not only allows students to cross disciplines freely, but also provides a more creative and engaging approach to learning.
Using real-world problems with students does not mean that we have to re-create all learning. Rather, it is the order in which the learning is done. For example, students can learn about soil bacteria through hands-on biological studies, interviewing professionals in the field and conducting research.
Instead of presenting the knowledge to students via texts and videos and having students regurgitate it in an essay, students discover the knowledge for themselves and work together to synthesize the information for distribution. This distribution can be extended beyond the classroom and their peers by handing out informational flyers in the community, for example. Thus, they are presented with a challenge that requires a number of skills and various knowledge applications in order to read—and share— instead of voluminous information to repeat to the class or teacher.
In another example, students can use language skills as well as geometry and algebra to design a building. The design can include budgets, a business proposal or report, the architectural drawings and a diorama. If you can, get a couple of architects or engineers in to judge the projects and award the “contract” of the design to the best group. This is a practical business skill that will aide students in the future while requiring them to acquire and apply core skills for the class task.
These are just some ideas of projects that some teachers have implemented successfully with middle and high school students. The guiding principle with all of them is that the projects and problems presented are relevant to students. Instead of memorizing information, students are given a question to answer; they have a more immediate and concrete task to accomplish than mere regurgitation of facts and formulas.
Just like adults in the real-world, students are challenged by real-world problems to incorporate a variety of appropriate skills and knowledge as they try to solve the problem presented. Students learn to question experts and apply knowledge they already have while expanding their knowledge in certain areas that they deem necessary for the project at hand—just as they would with real-world problems.
It’s difficult to change our approach to teaching when we were taught differently ourselves as students. However, we cannot ignore the fact that using real-world problems with students excites and motivates them to expand their knowledge independently.
As they make connections, they learn to apply their knowledge to other problems; they learn collaboration and they learn social skills. And, isn’t the real purpose of education to instill life-long skills in our students; knowledge that they can take with them beyond their school years and apply to the real-world?