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Picking the Perfect Problem: The Heart of Project-Based Learning

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By Jeff Heyck-Williams, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Two Rivers Public Charter School

Last spring eighth-grade students at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., created and shared lessons on the science and ethics of genetics in conjunction with the National Institute of Health's DNA Day. The eighth graders' work was part of a semester-long project exploring the problem of how to help educate the public about the rapidly advancing technologies and issues surrounding gene editing.

As an EL Education school, all Two Rivers students participate each year in two learning expeditions, in-depth, long-term projects in a particular topic. The eighth-grade project had students design learning experiences for students outside of Two Rivers and adults around the content and issues of gene editing. Like this eighth-grade project, project-based learning at its best provides a unique opportunity for students to develop a range of knowledge and skills inaccessible in more traditional models of learning. Specifically, project-based learning gives students the opportunity to experience the utility of academic content while developing agency, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

However, this doesn't happen without intentional planning and implementation. If we truly want to realize these outcomes, projects must be designed to build students' understanding of content while also addressing real needs in the community that connect to student interests and abilities.

We have found at Two Rivers that, to do this well, it all comes back to the problem that students are asked to solve. A well-articulated authentic problem provides both a motivation for students to learn and an opportunity to apply their learning in novel contexts. Picking the right problem differentiates effective project-based learning from ineffective project-based learning.

In planning the problems that students will grapple with, we have found that there are three criteria to consider: the curriculum, the students, and the context. Getting each of these right leads to the perfect problem.

TwoRivers.pngThink about the Curriculum

We always start with the curriculum. When we talk about curriculum, we mean all of the knowledge, skills, and mindsets that we want students to learn from a given project. This includes the science and social studies content of the particular topic and any relevant literacy, math, and technical skills such as video editing. However, that isn't all. We find it useful to articulate the critical thinking and problem-solving skills as well as collaboration and communication skills that we want students to develop through the course of the expedition.

The eighth-grade expedition on gene editing is a great example for highlighting a number of the considerations important for defining the curriculum of a project. Because of their interdisciplinary nature, expeditions at Two Rivers are designed by a team of teachers. In the case of the eighth-grade project, science teacher, Steve Karig, worked with English teacher, Mo Thomas, and special educator, Shannon Kelley. Steve, Mo, and Shannon collectively defined the outcomes by bringing their own expertise to the table.

Starting with the Next Generation Science Standards around inheritance and variation, Steve led the team in articulating the core concepts that every student should develop through the course of the expedition. Leaning on the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts, Mo and Shannon then led the team in identifying core reading and writing skills that would be essential to completing the project. Last but not least, the team identified a thinking routine around evidenced-based decision-making that they wanted students to learn to deploy in the process of solving the problem. Throughout all of the content, Shannon helped the team identify accommodations that they could implement to give all students access to the learning.

Think about your Students

After articulating the curricular outcomes in an expedition, we shift our focus to the students. We want problems that will drive students' curiosity, motivate them, and represent a reasonable stretch so that they accomplish more than they thought possible through the project. We specifically consider students' current content knowledge and understandings. Their current competencies with both subject matter and skills form the foundation on which the project and learning will be built.

However, we don't solely think about students in academic terms. We also want to be aware of student interests. The perfect problem in project-based learning will tap into the issues and questions that matter to the students.

In the case of gene editing, Steve, Mo, and Shannon recognized that students had a basic understanding of biology, but genetics would be an entirely new area of study for them. In addition, in English, students had already had experience making evidence-based claims. So, the team felt like the problem needed to drive students toward learning the content of genetics while building on some of their reading and writing skills.

The much trickier question was thinking about student interests related to genetics. The team landed on two core interests that they recognized about their eighth graders. One, like most middle schoolers, the students were compelled by controversy and justice. The students liked to debate ideas. Second, the teachers knew that if they could link the problem to current events, then the students would take a deeper interest. The CRISPR gene editing technology was making lots of news lately and the team knew that at least some students had heard of it, even if they didn't deeply understand it yet.

Think about your Context

Which brings us to the last consideration in designing the perfect problem: the context. Once we have considered the curricular outcomes that we are aiming for and the place where students are starting from, we look for authentic opportunities to apply the targeted content.

We have a couple of criteria in mind when we explore possible contexts. First, we look for organizations in our community where people are utilizing the content and also are interested in developing a partnership with a school. We are fortunate that being situated in Washington, D.C., affords us lots of community partners, but there are people in every community waiting to be connected to school projects. Second, we want the projects to meet a real need. We work with our community partners to determine what challenges they are facing so that our students will contribute to a solution.

With the eighth-grade project, Steve, Mo, and Shannon identified two community partners, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As they were exploring a possible partnership, the teachers learned about NIH's DNA Day and the possibility of creating learning modules for NIH's DNA day web page. In their research, the teachers explored the problem that DNA Day was attempting to solve: how do we communicate about the technical details and issues around genetics?  This problem met all of the criteria including targeted curriculum, student interest, and a context that could address a real problem in the community.

Picking the Perfect Problem

The process of picking the perfect problem is often messy and doesn't fall into the straight path outlined here. We sometimes find that what community partners need requires that we rethink some of the content that students will need to learn or that student interests demand that we take a different approach to the content. However, by keeping in mind the curriculum, the students, and the context, we can find the perfect problems and design deep and engaging projects that drive learning for all students.

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