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? 


10 Replies to “Watch Problem Based Learning in Action: Apollo 13”

  1. Great post, thanks, especially this: ‘While our students have been conditioned to “learn the basics – then solve the problem,” that’s not how life always works.’ I think it’s something many teachers still have to work at.
    Here’s my take in a cartoon on Bloom’s

    PS I always enjoy your posts.. lots to think about.

  2. Hi Ed,

    Glad you liked the post. I checked out your blog and was quite impressed. I like your Bloom cartoon. I didn’t know about Toondoo – must try that out.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I think a key problem in education is that we don’t push people to think for themselves and hence not look for others for permission or help.
    I believe that being a leader involves making decisions and this requires confidence and practice in taking chances.

  4. Sal,

    You are so right – education doesn’t do much to support risk taking. Many of the students in the “advanced” sections are there because they flawlessly follow instructions. They get rewarded with good grades and recommendations.

    BTW – I took a look at your new project management and collaboration site – It looks promising. Best of luck with the launch.

  5. Oh My Gosh! I just used this very example of Apollo 13 in a talk I gave in November to a group of science teachers! I think the crisis on Apollo 13 gave us a powerful public display of problem-solving and solution-finding that is so compelling as an educator. Gene Kranz’s determination to re-shape the mission based on the current reality (unforeseen problem) and his decision to look at technology not as what it was made for, but what it has the potention to do, is a good lesson as we consider the meaningful integration of technology in learning.

  6. Hyacinth, I guess great material gets around. I’m sure the science teachers loved it! I like your synopsis “look at technology not as what it was made for, but what it has the potention to do” – the essence of creativity! Best~ Peter

  7. “Work the problem!” I’ve been saying this in Harkness|Socratic classrooms since the film came out. David Perkins of Harvard’s Project Zero calls this thinking disposition “reasoning with what you know” or “intelligence in the wild.” Sad to hear that teachers are too concrete to imagine Blooms as a kind of flow chart, with many entry points, rather than a hierarchy.

  8. Hi Linda,

    There seems to be this idea that teachers need to start foundations and the basics. And then “maybe” we might get to try a project at the end as an add-on. That’s, of course, if we don’t run out of time.

    too bad…

  9. I have a question. According to the film what problem solving strategy is used? means-end analysis, working backwards, or using analogies?

  10. Hi Sarah,

    I’m not familiar with those categories of problem solving, so I couldn’t answer your question. My purpose was to illustrate the notion that problem can create an incentive for a re-examination of foundational understandings.

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