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by Sean Wheeler
Problems are great. They put us in uncomfortable places in our heads and hearts. They frustrate us and gnaw away at us. And it's because of this quality of problems, that they put us in what feels like a negative space, that problems get a bad rap. But if we want our students to be ingenius, to be engaged, to be creative, we need to embrace the idea that the tension created by a problem fosters the kinds of growth we really need our kids to experience in our classrooms.
The problems we need, need to be different from the problems we're used to. I think we've gotten used to pseudo-problems, problems that lack a real-context, and most especially, come ready-served without any of the aforementioned frustration.When my students used to write essays on Campbell's "The Hero's Journey" as applied to early Native-American oral tales, they weren't solving any mysteries, they were tellling me back everything I'd already taught them, but in a nifty MLA format. However, when I asked a group of students a few years ago to go out and identify an environmental problem in our city and give a presentation to our class that persuaded me to care about the problem, they were using all kinds of observation and analysis skills that are sorely lacking from the pseudo-problem posed by my old Campbell/Native-American essay. After teaching my students persuassive rhetoric, they were able to use it to persuade not only me, but members of our local community, that these issues are important to my students. The whole key to our success on that project was that I didn't walk into class on the first day and lay out "the problem" for them. Instead, I asked them to find those places in their walks around town that frustrated them, that bothered them, and then I asked them to share these frustrations and work on alleviating them through invention, creativity, collaboration, and tenacity.
Last year, at the start of the Wikiseat project, I asked my 85 students to think about where they needed a seat in their life. It sounds like an odd request for a homework assignment, but I asked students to think about moments of frustration in their daily routine that might be eased by having a chair to sit in. One student told me that her little sister liked to hang out on her bed during homework. The little sister was pretty squirmy, and it might be useful for the little sister to have a chair of her own. That way she could still hang out, but wasn't squirming too much on the bed. Another student told me that his mom worked two jobs, and in between jobs she'd sit on the back steps to put on her 2nd shift shoes. He thought it would be nice for her to have a stool to sit on, so she wouldn't have to sit on the dirty steps and ruin her work uniform. Other kids wanted a suped-up video game chair. Another only cared that her chair matched her walls, because her current chair certainly didn't, and the clashing of colors was too much to bear. The significant part of this whole process was that the students were able to identify a problem, and with that problem in their craw, they were able to start envisioning solutions. I suddenly had students who were driven in ways that I'd never seen before. By giving them the opportunity to work on the problems they saw around them, even something as trivial as building a seat for someone to sit on at home, they became engaged in finding solutions because the results actually mattered.
I'm really hoping to shape students who welcome problems with enthusiasm. That's got to be as good as any content we'd serve up otherwise, right? Teaching them how to think, using real problems as the means, seems significantly more important than teaching them what to think. And when it comes to the answer-based tests that dominate our current education landscape, I want kids who love questions because they are the ones that want to give the answers.