Critical Thinking

Grappling With Real-World Problems

Project-based learning can focus on real community issues to combine content and student interests.

November 1, 2016


Problem-based learning (PBL) is integrated at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC, at every grade level—pre-K through eighth grade. Students are presented with a real-world problem, undertake a series of investigations, and create a product that they present to an authentic audience as part of the Expeditionary Learning (EL) Education framework. 

PBL enables the school to reach all learners. “There are multiple entry points,” explains Julia Tomasko, a fourth-grade teacher. “It’s easy to scaffold [PBL] for students who need more support, and the sky’s the limit for extensions.”

In Tomasko’s problem-based unit covering Jamestown, her class looked through primary resources like John Smith’s diary. They discussed representation and how all the primary resources are from the English settlers. Tomasko recalls one of her students asking, “‘Out of all the cultures in the world, which culture do you think needs to have its story told more and have its voice heard?’ I was blown away. That’s not typical fourth-grade thinking, but she was clearly thinking through these ideas in a deep way and wondering how [they] can apply to other things.”

How It's Done

1. Backwards plan. Jeff Heyck-Williams, the director of curriculum and instruction, believes that the perfect problem connects content, student interest, and an authentic context. To guide your planning, he suggests asking:

  • What content and skills do my students need to learn?
  • What would be proof of their understanding?
  • In what contexts will they develop understanding?
  • What are my students interested in?
  • What are real problems that people in my field—ecology, biology, local history—grapple with that are related to the content I need to teach?
  • What is the problem that I want my kids to solve?
  • What product will my students create?

“Once you have those big pieces in place, you can start to plan: ‘What are the day-to-day things that I'm going to do to get them to face that problem and then move towards an ultimate solution?’” says Heyck-Williams.

2. Find a problem that’s relevant to your students’ interests and appropriate for their age. “Our youngest kids are working on problems that speak to things in their immediate environment,” explains Heyck-Williams, “but as kids move forward, they work with more philosophical problems outside of their direct community.”

First-grade students roamed school fields to investigate spiders. To discover the truth about spiders and help reduce people’s fear of them, each student created a scientific drawing of a spider and wrote a book exploring their characteristics, like eating mosquitos or bugs that harm people’s gardens. Fourth-grade students were asked how they could improve the quality of their local, polluted river. They created a website to teach kids how to take care of it. Eighth-grade students learned about gene editing, explored the ethics around it, and presented policy briefs to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (See 4 Tips on Teaching Problem Solving [From a Student].)

3. Be flexible with the product. It’s good to have a product in mind that you can guide your students towards, like creating a book, website, or policy brief. If you want your students to create a website, you can introduce websites as great resources in prior lessons. But the product isn’t the learning goal. Solving the problem and understanding the content is. The product is just the avenue to get there. If your students are excited about another product idea, go with it. When planning, think about the variety of products that your students might come up with to solve the problem, suggests Tomasko. Plan for flexibility.

4. Some lessons will be a flop, and that’s OK. “You think that you’re guiding your kids towards a certain idea,” reflects Tomasko, “and not only do they not come up with that, but sometimes they don’t come up with anything.” When this happens, go back to the planning board and think about how you can reteach that content another way. (See 3 Ways Lesson Plans Flop—and How to Recover.)

5. Start small. “When we first started problem-based learning, it was important for people to see that they could do this in small ways,” says Jessica Wodatch, the executive director of Two Rivers Public Charter School. “It’s really about taking your daily routine and thinking, ‘Where could kids have input? Where could kids be asked to solve a problem?’”

Instead of giving your students directions for an in-class assignment, ask them what they should do. If your students are lining up and it’s noisy, tell them what’s not working and ask them how they can solve it. If you create a birthday chart every year, have your students create it.

“It doesn’t need to be a three-week unit. It can be a little part of your day,” says Wodatch. “Part of the shift is thinking, ‘What can I hand to them? What am I deciding for them that I don’t need to?’ It’s about giving them some of that decision-making power, authority, and choice, and that is where we start to see the problem-based learning live.”

6. Use KWI to help your students problem solve. K: What do your kids already know about the problem? W: What do they need to know in order to solve the problem? I: What ideas do your students have to solve the problem? “Even if your students are solving an open-ended math problem, they can think through: What do they know about the problem, what’s being asked, and what different ideas do they have to solve it? Then you can apply that same structure to a more long-term project like a learning expedition,” says Tomasko.

Allowing students to explore ideas and make mistakes is a key element of problem-based learning at Two Rivers Public Charter School. Wodatch explains, “We want kids getting in the practice of weighing information, grappling with difficult problems that don’t have clear answers, considering different points of view and data, asking for expert opinions, and ultimately coming up with the solution. Those are things that we all do every day of our lives, and we want our kids to do that.”

School Snapshot

Two Rivers Public Charter School

Grades pre-K to 8 | Washington, DC
526 | Charter, Urban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$14537 Two Rivers Local Educational Agency $14439 all DC charters
Free / Reduced Lunch
60% Black
25% White
10% Hispanic
4% Multiracial
1% Asian
Demographic data is from the 2015-2016 academic year. Fiscal data is from 2014.

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Filed Under

  • Critical Thinking
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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