From Problem Based Learning to Purpose Led Learning #coetail


This week our COETAIL task is to examine Problem Based or Challenged Based Learning . The ideas seemed familiar, perhaps because I trained and taught in New Zealand.

The New Zealand curriculum outlines its vision for confident, connected, actively involved life-long learners. The curriculum is not heavy on content, instead it is strong on learning values and guiding principles. The curriculum seeks to address the quandary many educators face when trying to develop problem based learning, too much content not enough time. As a result, the focus for New Zealand teachers is developing understanding through active learning and authentic contexts.

There are some amazing examples of this happening throughout New Zealand. Yet there was a case of ‘well what next?’ See problem-based learning has a limitation. The teacher has already defined the problem or challenge to be solved in order to met X,Y and Z standard. As a result, innovative schools are moving on from ‘problem solving’ to ‘problem finding’ Stephen Lethbridge, principal of the phenomenal Taupaki school, argues that actually the 20the century education industrial education was effective at problem solvers, what the 21st century workforce calls for are problem finders.

A great example of this is a Year 11 Finnian Galbraith. He made a video for his film-making class. He spotted a problem New Zealanders of European descent mangling pronunciation of Māori words incorrectly and made a film to persuade other New Zealanders to learn the correct pronunciation.

His speech was initially a traditional stand in front of the class and give a talk, had a far higher audience when a teacher encouraged him to put it online. At last count the video has been viewed 350,000 times and has been featured in both the Guardian and the BBC. His film is well-written, demonstrating a knowledge of persuasive text yet he also has a profound understanding of the importance of sustaining culture in the fact of globalisation which is a key component of social science.

Of course New Zealand is not the only country where this happens. One of the first thinkers in education that I really loved was Diana Laufenburg’s idea of using authentic contexts to help children gain a deeper understanding of the social science curriculum.

One of the problems with all these problem and challenge based learning is that while we can make existing content, more engaging through more engaging tasks we don’t spend much time wondering if the tasks are relevant in the first place. All educators should be questioning the why of our teaching as Simon Sinek proposes. Are there some things we need to do more of? Are things that in the words of Reid Wilson need to be cut?

David Perkin’s book Future-Wise takes a more positive approach  by putting forward the idea of Life Worthy learning what’s worth learning. Perkins argues that learning would be more meaningful if it was organised around four ‘big understandings’

          Big in insight – helps reveal how our physical, social, artistic, or other worlds work

    Big in action – empowers us to take effective action professionally, socially, politically, or in other waysBig in ethics – urges us toward more ethical, humane, caring mindsets and conduct

            Big in opportunity – likely to come up in significant ways in varied circumstances

      Under this conceptual lens some of the ‘project based learning’ doesn’t really stack up in terms of being Perkins give the example of using dance to explain mitosis. Mitosis may be a great way for students to perform their understanding instead of writing a report that nobody other than the teacher reads, the result might go on YouTube so that other classes can remix the idea. Yet the activity itself might be more worthwhile experience for the dance rather than the scientific understanding.

      Which leads me to my idea that in designing learning experiences we need to be led by purpose rather than projects or problems. Purpose enables us to see the why before the what and the how it enables us to see beyond what has be done before. Perkins argues that the six beyonds are:

      1. Beyond the basic skills – the 4Cs (creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration) and developing other dispositions that enable children to live and thrive in this era
      2. Beyond the traditional disciplines – a focus on themes such as bioethics, ecology that address challenges and opportunities in contemporary society
      3. Beyond discrete disciplines – interdisciplinary topics and problems
      4. Beyond regional perspectives – global perspective, problems, and studies
      5. Beyond mastering content – learning to think about where content connects with life situations
      6. Beyond prescribed content – much more choice of what to learn

      Technology can support us to look beyond. But if we look merely at the what the tech will be used to do, we will substitute and augment what has gone before rather than redefine what will come in the future.

      from Teaching the Teacher

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