George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

Two Rivers Public Charter School

Grades pre-K to 8 | Washington, DC

Solving Real-World Issues Through Problem-Based Learning

The perfect problem connects content, student interest, and an authentic context.
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Julia: So how can we improve it so that it's clear that there's more than one thing?

Quimiah: You could just go to the tab that says that category.

Student: The cats, some cats are what makes the ecosystem healthy.

Julia: Awesome ideas. We're going to share with--

Jessica: Because our students solve real-world problems, they see themselves as important, thoughtful people who are able to grapple with really tough problems and to make decisions that have meaning.

Jeff: Our school is a preschool through eighth-grade public charter school in Washington. Our mission is really to help all students develop a lifelong love of learning.

Teacher: So keep cutting.

Jessica: Problem-based learning is at the heart of what we do. We think that learning is really important, but it's for a purpose, and that purpose for our kids is to solve some kind of problem that's important to them and to their lives.

Anne: What was the problem we're trying to solve?

Student: People think that spiders are disgusting and gross.

Anne: Yeah, and one of the stories that we read about spiders, how are the spiders portrayed, Jonas?

Jonas: In a horrible way.

People think that spiders are like scary or dangerous, and actually they're not.

Anne: We've been working on our spider stories for quite a while because they are the way that we're solving our problem.

Why write stories?

Student: It changes people mind.

Anne: And what else can it change?

Student: Their heart.

Anne: Their heart.

Every student studied their own spider. They did research on all of the attributes of that spider. Then they had to take those facts and create a story around them.

Sofia: The spider I've been researching is the broad-faced sac spider. My story is about this little spider trying to find a home, and other problems it gets through to find the perfect place to live.

Student: It's a daddy long legs.

Jonas: This writing project is actually helping us learn how to write better because you can look back at your research and then you can know like, the facts.

Anne: He dove to eat the spider.

What I hope that I'm building are like, tiny problem solvers.

Student: There was a spitting spider.

Anne: It's a really appropriate way for them to practice those lifelong skills.

Student: The bird didn't see him, so he went past. The end.

Jeff: When I think about how to identify a quality problem, I think about what is the authentic context that I can situate that problem within? Our school is called Two Rivers, and one of those two rivers is the Anacostia that is not swimmable or fishable.

Julia: Our website needs to teach kids all about the river ecosystem. Both its problems and how we can make it healthy again.

Jeff: So they're creating a website.

Julia: So start to think about this third question. What changes can we make to improve?

Quimiah: We get to teach kids about the Anacostia and what makes the ecosystem healthy.

Julia: Partnering with the Anacostia Watershed Society is giving kids the idea that this is a real-world connection.

Ariel: We worked with Two Rivers. The students are really taking part in an authentic restoration project.

Bryn: I like that a topic isn't taught to you. You have to like, figure stuff out. We go on field studies so we can see what it actually looks like.

Solutions like rain barrels, wetland plants.

Ariel: It's not like we're looking at, you know, what's happening with the rainforest. Everything that they do every day is impacting the water.

Student: Zoom in, zoom in.

Ariel: It's much more powerful for them to be involved in something that's part of their own community.

Jeff: As kids move through our school, they all are working within these problems.

Anne: Did it make you like the spiders a little more?

Jeff: Our youngest kids are working on projects that speak to things in their immediate environment.

Julia: Interesting.

Jeff: But as kids move forward in class, they work with more philosophical kinds of problems outside of their direct community.

Teacher: Is your conclusion covering a variety of stances on gene editing?

Jessica: So what we want kids to be able to do is getting in the practice of weighing information, of grappling with really difficult things that don't have clear answers. Considering different points of view, considering different points of data, asking for expert opinions and ultimately coming up with a solution. Those are things we all do every day in our lives, and they make our work better, so we want kids to be able to do that.

Student: Hold up, guys, we have a Twitter and Facebook and YouTube.

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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.”

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Calvin Heyward's picture

The thing I liked best is that the teachers weren't afraid to fail. If the lesson is not working the teachers adjust and move on; and isn't that one of the most valuable things kids can learn?

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