Watch Problem Based Learning in Action: Apollo 13

This fall I’ve had the opportunity to lead many teachers on classroom walkthroughs in schools across the country. My approach is a “roving Socratic seminar” that uses brief glimpses of learning as a discussion starter for educators to reflect on their craft. For more on my walk through technique see my blog post  ”Teacher-Led Professional Development: Using Classroom Walk Throughs


One topic that always comes up on walkthroughs is something to the effect “… but don’t you have to teach the basics first,  before you can expect students to be able to think at higher levels?” There’s a persistent assumption that Bloom’s taxonomy is a one-way street. Analysis, evaluation and creation can only take place after a solid foundation of basics have been “installed” into the student’s knowledge base.

While our students have been conditioned to “learn the basics – then solve the problem,” that’s not how life always works. Most often we are confronted with problems that force us to go back and discover underlying foundational elements. Car won’t start… now what? 

Watch an infant getting into everything in the kitchen and you’ll realize that  kids are flexible learners, capable of moving fluidly between the basics and the problem. Every time our students play a new video game they confront a new environment with a unique set of interactions constrained by rules. Most often they have to discover how the game is played in a manner that mimics the scientific method – developing and testing hypothesis against their growing understanding of rules, functions, obstacles, rewards that underly the process of the game. Problem first, then basics.

When designing a lesson, teachers need remember that Bloom’s taxonomy is not a one-way street. It has multiple pathways and entry points – knowledge can be put into practice in a problem and a problem can be used to generate a body of knowledge. 

Need a good example of problem-based learning in action? Use this scene from “Apollo 13” as your walkthrough discussion starter. As you watch the clip think about the interaction of the problem and the basics.

  • Situation: An explosion forced the crew to shut down the command module and use the lunar module as a “lifeboat.” 
  • Problem: They needed to jury-rig a carbon dioxide filtering system for the lunar module.
  • Understanding the basics: What’s available aboard the space craft and how can it be used to modify the filtering system? 


Test Prep – The Steroids of Student Achievement

As a life-long NYS educator, the NY Times article “Warning Signs Long Ignored on New York’s School Tests” came as no surprise. I’ve been posting on the impact of NCLB-driven standardized testing for years.

While business leaders and politicians lauded the success of the corporate-inspired standards movements, teachers knew that the impressive gains in student achievement were an illusion. As the NY TImes piece reports, for the last decade, a generation of NY students has been force-fed a steady diet of test prep designed to ready them for predictable tests.

“The fast rise… of New York’s passing rates resulted from the effect of policies, decisions and missed red flags that stretched back more that 10 years … The process involved the direct warnings from experts that went unheeded by the state and [NY] city administration that trumpeted gains in student performance… It involved the state’s decision to create short, predictable exams… making coaching easy…” NY TImes October 11, 2010

NCLB sanctions have closed failing schools that had persisted for years as “drop-out factories.” But we’ve paid a high price for accountability as measured by standardized tests. School were re-tooled to serve the needs of the test. Scarce funds were diverted to vendors who peddled programs guaranteed to improve student achievement. Creative teachers were mandated to drop the “fluff”  and teach to the test, while lecture-driven teachers droned on affirmed that it was the best way to ensure student success. Instructional time was devoted to what was tested – reading and math – so students were routinely pulled from art and music for “remediation.” A triage mentality set in among administrators who thought it wisest to focus disproportionate resources to student on the cusp of meeting standards to the detriment of other performance levels.

Of course the ones who suffered most were the students. They were forced to spend long hours engaged in an extended exercise in remembering what they were told, then practice it at their desk (or as homework) in preparation for the opportunity to give it back on the test (generally in the same form they had received it). Instead of exploring their interests, students served largely to produce performance statistics that educators could slice into measurable demographic sub groups.

While NCLB began with the admirable goal of narrowing demographic performance gaps and putting an end to sorting kids on the “bell curve,” test policy has set a course that defines student achievement in manner largely out of step with the skills our students will actually need to successful. Ironically, while our students spend endless hours prepping for predictable tests, the demand for routine skills has largely disappeared from the workplace. Anyone know of a meaningful and rewarding career that looks like filling out a worksheet?

Our kids are inheriting a world with a host of problems that will require some out-of-the-box solutions. Their success will be contingent on their ability to function independently in ever-changing situations as fluid, adaptable, and reflective thinkers. Our classrooms should be refocused on student creativity. But for now our education policy is still aimed at NCLB’s quixotic goal of all students reaching proficiency on standardized tests. Unless we institute more genuine assessments, our measures of student achievement will be as inspiring as a steroid-tarnished home run record.
Image Flickr / Jason

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