BLC 11: Problem-finding is the next big thing


One of the threads to emerge out of a number of terrific presentations at November Learning’s Building Learning Communities 2011 conference in Boston was the idea that we are shifting to a new pedagogy.

We might describe the old model of teaching–let’s call it “education 1.0”–as a problem-solving pedagogy. In it, students are asked to solve hundreds of trivial problems in textbooks and worksheets. Page-tall columns of algebra equations come to mind immediately, but we find equally dull work in other subjects, too: book reports in language arts classes, listing provinces and their capitals in Social Studies classes, for example. I realize I’m being a bit hasty here. There is a good argument for drilling in order to build skills. There is also great value in just knowing things. However, it’s not hard to see that if this is all we do we are in danger of creating a classroom of highly skilled but not very imaginative or creative students. This is the lament of China’s education leaders.

Education 1.0 was replaced by a problem-based learning model–let’s call this education 2.0. Here, curricula and student work are driven by relatively complex problems meant to give purpose to the sort of drilling that went on in vacuo before. In order to solve a problem, students–it’s believed–will naturally search for and hone the skills they need to solve it. The critique heard at BLC 11, quite loudly from Ewan McIntosh, is that these problems are artificial. The answers are already known by the teachers or some other authority so the problem is not in fact a problem to be solved at all. More importantly, as Dr. Eric Mazur and Dr. Steven Wolfram pointed out in their keynotes, this sort of contrivance does little to prepare students to be the life-long learners schools universally claim they are creating. Again, I’m aware I’m taking some liberties. It is indeed well worth the effort to walk through some old problems just to see how others went about solving them, to study their methods, as we say. This is what Newton meant when he said he stood on the shoulders of giants. He did not mean, however, that the purpose of that study was to add another hammer in the problem-solving toolbox. He meant the purpose of that study was to find where old methods were insufficient for cracking open knew knowledge.

So here at BLC 11, the buzz is about giving education 2.0 another turn turn to create a problem-finding pedagogy. Let’s call this education 3.0. Here we want students to engage with problems to which even the teachers do not know the answers, to engage with the “unknown unknowns” as Ewan McIntosh says. 


It’s there in the terra icognita of knowledge that learning gets exciting. Discoveries in this area have genuine value not just to the student, but to everyone. I’ve heard many teachers express chagrin at the way students toss out their notebooks at year-end. But if those notes aren’t much more than a record of drills–the equivalent of a record of the pushups one has done all year–I can hardly fault the students. Indeed, I think we have a serious moral problem if we are compelling students to attend classes and don’t help them produce something of intrinsic worth. 

Something else exciting happens when we pass the edge of the knowns, too, I think. Students are encouraged to work at a very high level of thinking when they are asked to analyze a collection of data, judge it’s worth, synthesize it and draw out a question for further study. (I wonder if structure of education itself inhibits, even excludes, higher-order thinking. That would make the efforts of teachers to encourage students to think more deeply and richly largely misplaced. If we want to change behaviour, we have to make sure the environment supports the new behaviour. It’s a study I’d like to pursue.)

Wolfram created his fabulous apps to relieve the students of the burden of trivial calculations so that they can apply there mental energy to finding the new problem in set of data. Marco Torres looks at apps like Thumbjam and Hex OSC Full  the same way, as tools that let the non-piano player get on with making a soundtrack for a video, for example. (Hans Rosling, not at the conference, created his Gapminder software for the same reason.) I am proposing a model workflow for a problem-finding school that could employ these tools and get on with finding new problems:


This is a sketch. I need to spend some time thinking about what this looks like in practice, especially across all the grades. But I’m suggesting that as the students consider the questions in the diamonds, they must do some hard thinking. They would also have to think carefully–critically–about where to get help. I can see links to building social networks and teaching social search here.

I am especially interested in the final question–“is it worth keeping?” That question, essentially, replaces the final exam. (There’s probably another loop in here that asks if we ran another iteration of the problem would we find a better answer.) 

Students also have to consider how they will store that data for later use. I favour a bucket to hold huge piles of unstructured data that users can can reorder as they need, hence my note to tag rather than file. It seems the semantic web, which would be ideal here, is still a ways off, but there are ways to set up unstructured data collections even primary students could use. We had a custom-built prototype bucket at my previous school and I am pretty sure one can build a good workarounds using a combination of off-the-shelf tools. (More on that later.)

I’ll spend the next few weeks of summer tinkering with this plan and have it ready to run with my students when school starts in the fall. In the meantime, I’d appreciate any thoughts.



  1. Reply
    Suzie Nestico July 31, 2011

    Thought provoking. Just curious, though. In this truly problem-based approach to schooling, where does instruction of the basic skills come into play? I also came across this post earlier today and initially thought it a bit of a stretch. Then, I read your post and it’s left me with a few questions. And, I am not in disagreement. I am merely trying to sort it all through for myself. When you say, “In order to solve a problem, students – it is believed – will naturally search for and hone the skills they need to solve it,” I’m not quite clear, then, on what baseline level of skills with which we, as teachers, should be providing our students in this model. I realize you acknowledge that there is a good argument for some drilling in order to build skills. I guess, from a teacher’s perspective, my question is, in this proposed problem-based approach, how, where, and when are children learning the basic skills they need to be able to engage in this level of problem-solving? Do we minimize our instruction of basic operational skills, as this other post mentioned above suggests, given technology’s ability to deliver trivial calculations? Or is there still inherent value in teaching, learning and understanding the process behind the trivial calculations that are now so easily retrievable via technology? Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

  2. Reply
    Brad Ovenell-Carter July 31, 2011

    Hi Suzie,Thanks for commenting. My post is a first impression and there’s a lot to flesh out.I read Andrew Hannelly’s post on Social Media Today. I think there are problems with the way he’s phrased his question (I left a comment to the effect) but I take his point–and yours.Don’t get me wrong. I’m a pretty old-fashioned guy when it comes to teaching. I think Latin and Greek are fine things to know and I like my students to memorize poetry as well as their times tables. But a problem-based, or better, a problem-finding model doesn’t preclude or even minimize the teaching of the grammar, so to speak, of any subject. Rather, it makes sense out of it. I might say problem-solving and problem-based learning are necessary but not sufficient for a good education. Problem-finding engages students with the purpose of learning, whereas the other models do not.I honestly don’t yet know how to answer your question, “Is there inherent value in teaching, learning and understanding the process behind the trivial calculations…?” Strictly speaking, I don’t see value in teaching anything trivial. I might ask you in return if there is value in teaching, learning and understanding the trivial lines of code that make this posterous site work? The answer would be no, wouldn’t you agree? I don’t think we need to get into specifics at all here: if any sort of thing truly is trivial, why would we belabour it? But I think you mean something a little different by your question. Or rather, I think you mean a different and excellent question: What counts as trivial knowledge? The answer might be “It depends.” The statement “2+2=4” is trivial if we are talking about taking two things and another two things and then seeing we have four things. But if we are talking about the concept of addition, it is not trivial. It depends, too, on the student’s age. As I pointed out, I need to work out how this problem-finding model plays out across all grades. It depends, too, on what age we are in. In 1610, when Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius, it was not at all trivial thing to say the sun and not the earth was at the centre of things. I think teachers will play a big role in helping their students determine what is trival and what is not. That is what I was thinking when I drew that “Is it worth keeping?” branch in the flow chart.Thanks for keeping me thinking. As an aside, this marvelous speech, The Lost Tools of Learning given by Dorothy Sayers in 1947, is to my mind still the best articulation of good teaching.

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