Solving Problems in the Real World

January 31, 2011

Life presents us with few multiple choice tests. Our jobs and our lives are filled with more complex problems, often with no correct answer. We hope only for the best outcome, or at least one that will not result in an explosion, unless we wanted to blow something up. 

One of the great problems we must solve as educators is teaching students to become problem solvers themselves–to assess information, consider options, experiment with outcomes and analyze results. I was intrigued to learn from two colleagues, eager to emphasize the value of developing problem solving skills, how problem solving took center stage in their classes the first day of school.

Jennifer Mabe
Jennifer Mabe introduced her students to the challenge of her advanced functions and modeling course by asking them to produce exactly seven cups of water from two unmarked pitchers measuring three and eight cups. She explains, “After filling up containers with water, dumping containers of water, and transferring water between pitchers(SEVERAL TIMES!!!!!) we were finally able to determine the correct method of getting 7 cups of water.” Student engagement, she observed, was extraordinarily high during that lesson.

Jed Smith
Jed Smith also wanted to observe his physics students’ problem solving skills, so he challenged them with a simple building project. Students  received a few supplies–sheets of paper, paper clips, plastic cups–and one simple instruction: build the tallest free-standing structure you can. The task challenged students to analyze their materials and explore their knowledge of physics as they constructed their creations.

A Paradigm Shift
Mr. Smith and Ms. Mabe both understand the fact that to educate our students we must challenge them intellectually with the real problems of the world in which they live. We must engage them not only as receivers of information, but as thinkers, as doers, as active participants with hands and eyes and brains. The video linked below–a speech by Sir Ken Robinson enhanced by an artistic interpretation–explains this idea (and much more) brilliantly. I hope you will take a few minutes to view it.

Video link: Changing Education Paradigms 

Let’s have another contest. Submit a brief description of an activity you have used or plan to use that challenges the real-life problem solving skills of your students. Submit your response by the end of the day on Wednesday, Feb. 9 either as a reply on this blog or via e-mail.

Prize: two gift cards for Panera
The winner will be determined by random selection.

Feedback Fridays & Contest

January 6, 2011

(Read on for contest details)

The newest member of our English department is a bright young lady named Uvonda Willis. Ms. Willis seems driven to meet the needs of her students and to constantly improve what she is doing, two goals she attempts to tackle with a strategy she calls Feedback Fridays. Each Friday, she solicits input from her students by passing out note cards and asking them to share their comments and ideas regarding the lessons and activities for the week. Students drop their cards in an attractively-decorated box; then, Ms. Willis reads them and facilitates a brief discussion.

A word of warning. This strategy is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. The teacher must be willing to hear whatever criticism students offer and must demonstrate a genuine interest in student feedback. Sometimes that means being flexible.

For Students Who Don’t Care
Those teachers who have participated in the book club for Allen Mendler’s Motivating Students Who Don’t Care will certainly remember the author’s thoughts on building relationships, one of five key factors for motivating the unmotivated. Mendler writes, “It is as if we make deposits into a reservoir of goodwill from which we can make withdrawals when needed.” The Feedback Fridays strategy is exactly the type of deposit Mendler has in mind. By soliciting students’ input and making a genuine effort to consider it in planning and instruction, the teacher invests in the relationship. The return comes in the form of effort.

Going Digital
Ms. Willis is not yet satisfied with her feedback strategy. She recently discovered and realized that the reply function on the website makes it easy for students to provide her with the weekly feedback she desires. So, along with much of Ms. Willis’ communication with students and parents, Feedback Fridays might go digital this semester. Either way, it is a strategy certain to help teachers improve their teaching and foster stronger relationships with their students.

Building relationships is important for motivating students. Briefly describe one strategy you have used in the past or plan to use this semester to build relationships with your students. Please submit your strategy as a comment (scroll to the top of the screen and look for the word “comment”) by Thursday, 1/13/11.

All submissions will be entered into a drawing for a gift certificate to the Great Outdoor Provision Co. and will be posted to