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Secret to Better PBL? Focus on Problem-Finding

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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On April 22, a billion people around the world are expected to take part in Earth Day 2012 celebrations. Among the anticipated "billion acts of green" will be scores of events for students and schools, from gardening lessons to eco-fairs to solar cooking demonstrations. It could be an ideal set-up for young people to dive deeply into problem solving and creative thinking -- but only if we trust students to figure out which problems they want to tackle.

That's advice from educator and entrepreneur Ewan McIntosh, who knows a thing or two about engaging students in project-based learning. Last fall, he facilitated an event that drew 10,000 students from five continents to tackle some of the world's biggest problems. Students came together online for the ITU Telecom World Meta Conference. The youth event ran in parallel with a face-to-face gathering of global leaders from telecommunications and technology industries.

Students were challenged to design solutions to tough issues, such as improving access to clean drinking water or extending education to reach all the world's children. Their proposals had to meet a few basic criteria. "We set out success of an idea in terms of being tangible, pragmatic, make-able," McIntosh explained.

What did students dream up? Using the process of design thinking, they developed concepts such as wheelchairs with built-in cell phones to improve life for those with disabilities, a seed exchange to help villagers grow their way out of hunger, water purification built right into a riverbed, and smartphone apps to prevent food spoilage.

Before students could arrive at these ingenious solutions, they first had to fully understand the problems they were attempting to solve. (Read a summary of the event here.)


Equipping students to be better problem-finders is something McIntosh is passionate about. In a provocative talk last year at TedxLondon, he outlined the pitfalls of leaving it to adults to define which problems should be solved. "Currently, the world's education systems are crazy about problem-based learning, but they're obsessed with the wrong bit of it," he insists. "While everyone looks at how we could help young people become better problem-solvers, we're not thinking how we could create a generation of problem-finders."

Design thinking provides a better framework for learning that emphasizes defining the problem at the outset. Before diving into solutions, students might first conduct focus groups, do user interviews, or conduct other research to fully understand an issue. That means they develop empathy along with ingenuity as they work through the iterative process of generating ideas, prototyping, testing, getting user feedback, and refining solutions.

Cultural Shift

Through his consulting organization, No Tosh, McIntosh is introducing the Design Thinking School concept to schools across Europe, Asia, and the United States. He's discovering that this way of thinking and learning requires a wholesale shift in education. "Design thinking is not a project that one does on a Wednesday afternoon once the 'serious' learning has taken place. It's a change of culture throughout a school that leads to better learning," he says.

Before schools start making the shift to design thinking, McIntosh encourages them to conduct action research to fully understand the problems they want to address. Essentially, teachers and school leaders use design-thinking methods to figure out what's working in their school and what isn't. Then they're ready to move ahead with generating ideas, prototyping solutions, gathering feedback, and improving on ideas to overcome challenges.

Earth Day Resources

How can you help your students become better problem-finders this Earth Day? For starters, bring them into project planning early so that they have a stake in whatever driving question they are attempting to answer. Help them think critically about the issues that most interest them. How can they make a real difference? How would they define "success"? And how might their efforts be sustained so that good ideas keep going well beyond Earth Day?

Please use the comments to share ideas for the Earth Day projects that your students are helping to design. What problems are they most eager to solve?

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Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Sandra Wozniak's picture
Sandra Wozniak
President, NJ Association for Middle Level Education

Check out this blog with Earth Day resources for the simple "Paper or Plastic?" dilemma. This could lead to a great design challenge.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Thanks for sharing the "Paper or Plastic?" project idea and resources. I especially like the SCAN protocol to encourage critical thinking. Love to hear from others who are using it.

Michelle Cook's picture

Another great SCAN session involves the environment. Students can debate whether a new mall should be built in a rural environment. Students read and write from a specific point of view to decide on a plan of action.

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Chief Operating Officer, Francis Parker School, San Diego

Many of our students have been on experiential-based learning opportunities in countries in the developing world where environmental issues are often more critical than they are at home. When issues like water shortage, reef destruction, and climate change occur, they impact people on the margin quickly and in life-changing and usually negative ways. With social media, our students can reach out to their friends in developing countries, not to just chat, but to remind all of us about the importance of Earth Day and what it stands for. Doing something small on Earth Day is good no matter where you live.

Bill Seitz's picture
Bill Seitz
parent of 3 kids age 5-14, NYC until recently, now burbs

Great post. My only nudge is whether "Problem Finding" implies there's a nice platonic-ideal project sitting out there in the field, vs whether it's better (esp in a complex system) to recognize that you're *making a choice* when you define a problem. And that the most common outcome of a project working in a complex system is to end up with a "better" problem definition...

Patricia Clark's picture

Wow this is very good information for general reader because I have no any idea about this Earth Day. Yes I will definitely celebrate this day with plant some trees. Actually I like this website because more than valuable information are posting in this websites different pages. So thanks for sharing this and I will again visit this website.

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