How Problem Based Learning can Empower the Next Generation…

Last week, I was out of town sitting at an airport awaiting a flight back to Atlanta. I found a WIFI spot and thought I’d catch up on some email and work prior to my flight. The Internet connection was poor and I found myself quickly frustrated at the fact that I couldn’t get to my work quickly. Rather than wait a few extra seconds for the webpage to download, I moved on to something else not patient enough to wait. As I sat in frustration, I thought about how drastically our world has changed. I recalled the days in the late 90s when you actually had to “dial in” for a connection. You remember don’t you? That funky noise from the modem that took place as the initial Internet connection began?

Going back another decade to the great 80’s, I began thinking about growing up during that time. As a child, I was into “all things sports” and recalled memories of playing outside in the neighborhood all day with my friends. Whether I was pretending to be Andy Van Slyke in a contentious backyard baseball game or Mario LeMieux leading the Penguins to a pivotal victory over the Flyers in a heated street hockey match (Sorry, I grew up in Pittsburgh so I bleed black & gold), I was content occupying most of my time playing with the boys and dreaming of one day being a sports icon. By high school, I realized that unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough, athletic enough, or talented enough to make it as a professional athlete.

Athletics taught me a lot about life and my Dad was good about connecting sports to the real life principles of hard work, dedication, and overcoming adversity. My grandfather once told me that with “guts & determination”, you can accomplish anything. As I think about the next generation, I become increasingly concerned about how we are preparing our children for life. We live in a world of convenience where now, more than ever, practically anything and everything we want (not necessarily need) is right in our fingertips. While I was able to learn these core principles as a ‘Generation X’ guy who grew up in the 80s, our world has changed and what “worked in the past” doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in the future.

So in the world of Google & smartphones, how are we as parents, educators, and as a society preparing our children for the realities of work and life in the 21st Century? What are we doing to teach our kids that “Hard” isn’t necessarily a bad thing and “Easy” isn’t necessarily good? If I found myself frustrated and annoyed at my inability to access a good WIFI connection to check email at the airport, where do our children stand on navigating their way through challenges and situations where there really is no easy, convenient solution? How prepared are our children to face adversity? What are we doing to teach our children to cope with and learn how to overcome difficulty and challenges that they will face?

I am encouraged in many ways at the emphasis being placed in our schools on what is known as Problem Based Learning (PBL). According to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), PBL, is “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working an extended time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex problem, or challenge.” Key elements in Problem-Based Learning include key knowledge of what is expected, a challenging problem or question, sustained inquiry, relevancy to real-world problems, student voice/choice, reflection, critique, and producing a final product.

The idea behind PBL is to provide relevant, authentic experiences where students can leverage the tools of technology and the information so easily accessible to them to solve complex issues and produce a solution that yields results.

Personalized Learning and Problem Based Learning work hand in hand. FocalPointK12 provides school districts with a student performance management system that communicates success criteria to students while empowering teachers to facilitate PBL to students using a medium that is efficient and relevant to the 21st Century Learner. Students need to know what is expected of them, where they are in reaching the assigned objectives, and have relevant resources and supports that are customized according to their unique needs, interests, preferences, and learning styles.

What sets FocalPointK12 apart from the flooded market of all the learning management systems and assessment software out there, is that data, assessments, and resources in FocalPointK12 are deliberately connected to students mastering standards in ways that are personalized. Rather than logging into a program and “clicking away”, students are empowered to take ownership of their learning by viewing their standards mastery data, accessing resources that support further growth, and receiving personalized support from their teachers who facilitate and guide students through the process. FocalPointK12 brings together ALL relevant data including universal screener assessments, historical statewide test results, district-wide benchmarks, and formative/summative classroom assessments. The visibility by which students can see their ‘academic profile’ while learning to problem-solve and work towards mastery in a blended learning format is a recipe for success.

Students need to see clearly the cause/effect relationships of how their submitted work is connected to the success criteria. All too often, we assess students in ‘silos’ and don’t allow them to see the direct correlation of how their performance does or does not meet the standard. Unfortunately, we’ve set an unhealthy precedence that an ‘A’ means we can ‘check the box’ and move on or a ‘D’ means we aren’t good enough. Yet a ‘D’ on a test very well could have more value to a student than an ‘A’ IF assessments are being used to inform and guide a student towards mastery of standards. Think about it! Failing is an opportunity for growth. The most successful people in life are those who have learned to use failure as a catalyst for future success. Providing standards based feedback to students, giving students assignments that are performance and problem based, and using technology as a medium to empower these processes is critical to preparing our next generation of students.

At FocalPointK12, we are committed to empowering the next generation of learners. If you are interested in learning about how FocalPointK12 can support problem based learning through a custom-fit solution tailored to your school districts needs, please contact me directly at nathan.buhl@focalpointk12.com

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