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TOY Stories Blog: Problem-based Hands-on Learning is Key



Chad Shelly 5

By Chad Shelly

There is one huge challenge all teachers face.  We have to find a way to manage 25 or more student behaviors, while helping them all attain the objective for the day.  These 25 or more students all have different reading levels, learning preferences, instructional aides, intelligences, etc.  It is a daunting task that all teachers struggle to conquer every day.  Yet there is one attribute that all students possess that is often forgotten in education.  All students possess some level of curiosity.  Often educators are so bogged down by curriculum, classroom management, standards, test scores, grades, and numerous other responsibilities that we forget to engage our students.  If we tap into the innate curiosity of our students, we will find that many of our troubles will disappear.

The question arises then: how do we engage every student and tap into his or her curiosity?  It all starts with setting the scene with real life, applicable problems that the students are given the freedom to solve, otherwise known as problem-based learning.  The most common question I hear from students in various classes is, “why do I need to know this?”  First, the question should not arise, because the students should be given problems to solve that are applicable to them, and the teacher should be using information they are learning — not simply a standard or objective.  For example, to illustrate osmosis, it is neat, hands on, and engaging to see a potato lose or gain mass based on the solution that it is in.  However, it is important for students to know what happens to a potato or more important that they know how to use and apply this information in the real world?  Instead, the potato can be used as a model to provide students with the necessary information to solve a problem; for example, why diabetics experience excessive thirst.  No longer will the students ask why they need to know about osmosis, because solving the problem makes it apparent to them.  They will also be more engaged because they have a diabetic relative or friend who experiences this and the student will want to discover why.  The problem is still finding the real-life examples and experiences that are meaningful for all of the students.

This is where teachers have to be creative and let go of their control by offering student choice through several different questions.  Let some students investigate why fresh water fish will not survive in salt water and vice versa.  Others can watch the clip in “Water World” to figure out why Kevin Costner drinks his own urine — “yuk!”  Still others can explore why slugs die when salt is poured on them, and various other questions can be posed. All these questions require the same knowledge and understanding to answer correctly, but tap into various interests and offer students choice, which is an important form of engagement.  The beauty in this setup is that the assignment can be left open-ended enough to allow students to build on their curiosity or creativity.  Some students may find the problem so interesting that you can allow them to do further research on the issue, develop a solution, or design their own experiment.  Other students may use their creativity to build a model, website, or Twitter feed to allow students to share their knowledge and engage in arguments about their problem.

This instructional method takes time and more thought for teachers than just trying to address the standards, but problem-based learning will make lessons more dynamic, engaging, and effective.  While science may lend itself more to problem-based learning, there is no reason why it cannot be applied to all subjects.  For example, KQED offers numerous resources and topics that teachers can use to develop disciplinary literacy skills and evidence-based arguments on relevant current issues.  In the end it is our job as educators to find the students’ passions and use them to drive learning and open opportunities to future endeavors.


Biology teacher Chad Shelly, from Colonel Richardson High School, is Caroline County’s 2015 2015 Teacher of the Year.