What Problems Do You Want To Solve?

As a little girl, my parents and teachers used to ask me “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Oddly enough, it was a paralyzing question. If everything is possible, how do you choose? How can you even choose what, when you don’t even know why?

“What Problems Do You Want to Solve?”

Refugees. Clean Water. Literacy. Poverty. Climate Change. Clean Energy. Trash in the Oceans. Air Pollution. Housing. Bees. War. Parking. Transportation. Depression. Cancer. Nutrition. Diabetes. Bullying. Etc. Etc. Etc.

What if, instead of asking kids what they want to be, we started asking them what problems they want to solve? What if their entire education was centered around identifying and solving problems?

When I think about these questions, I see that schools need to change. The current model discourages such thinking. Departments, curricula, units, final exams, and external exams all require a compartmentalized way of thinking and teaching. I do math in my math class, I read and write in my English class. But getting a community to recycle requires analysis of the problem, writing and convincing, transportation of materials, managing people, machines to sort and process, smelters, and I don’t even know what else. This requires collaboration, empathy, the ability to problem solve, in addition to knowledge and skills.

While I struggle to imagine embedding this type of learning into what I currently do, I have no trouble imagining an entirely new way of doing school: Challenge-Based Learning, which encourages the tackling of real issues, rather than learning specific skills; collaboration, rather than assessment of individuals; and flexible use of time and space, rather than rigid time-tabling and classroom walls.

Imagine Abstract//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js


Teacher teams working across a variety of subjects to support groups of kids in approaching big issues. Teachers who get kids to wonder and ask questions, who teach them the skills needed to approach a problems together. Teachers who help kids figure out what they don’t know and how they will gain that knowledge or skill. Teachers who help kids identify and source the tools needed to accomplish a task.

Kids who are curious about the world and what makes it tick. Kids who care about global issues and feel empowered to make a difference. Kids who are motivated to learn because they know their solutions are needed.

Time in the day to work together, to work alone, to dream, to meet with teachers, to relax, to find a resource on the other side of town or on the other side of the planet, to learn a necessary skill.

Buildings with flexible spaces. Not open classrooms, but learning studios and suites that allow for kids to work together, move desks, sit on couches, put up walls when needed or take them down.

No grades, because success is the solution of problems. No departments, because learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. No schedules, because you can’t put time constraints on saving the world.

THE future is here

Maybe this sounds pretty wishy-washy, touchy-feely, dreamy, but there are schools already working in this direction:

The Evangelische Schule Berlin Zentrum, for instance, limits required subjects “to maths, German, English and social studies, supplemented by more abstract courses such as ‘responsibility’ and ‘challenge’…Students are encouraged to think up other ways to prove their acquired skills, such as coding a computer game instead of sitting a maths exam.”

At Clark Street Community School in Middleton, Wisconsin, kids design their own educational path toward meeting rigorous core standards and demonstrate their knowledge and skills through self-directed project- and place-based learning.

No matter their age, pre-K through high school, students at Sudbury Valley School” are given the freedom to use their time as they wish, and the responsibility for designing their path to adulthood.” The school runs as a democracy, in which every member, staff and student, has an equal voice.

These are just a few examples of schools taking the lead, encouraging kids to follow their passions, to solve big problems together. According to Sir Ken Robinson, there are “now dozens of schools based on similar principle in more than 30 countries.” (Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative, 262 )

Autumn 3//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

It takes courage

High schools blame universities for requiring exams, middle schools blame high schools for wanting high schools to prepare kids for academic rigor, and parents want the best for their kids and this includes university admittance, and so the cycle of classrooms and prescribed curricula and desks and exams continues. But business leaders, as described in this Pew study, are begging for us all to prepare kids for the needs of the future workplace and to develop alternate skills: networking, collaboration, empathy, creativity, problem-solving.

I don’t know how to do this in the confines of an exam-driven curriculum. It’s time for a change, a huge change.

And so I ask again: What problems do you want to solve?


Thank you to flickr! and creative commons for the images:

Imagine Abstract by Jeffrey

Autumn 3 by RosenHolz219


2 thoughts on “What Problems Do You Want To Solve?

  1. I 100% agree! School innovation, in many cases thus far, is still very stuck in the old paradigm and will likely remain that way without a major shift in structure and philosophy, as you suggest. This is not a new topic – I remember similar discussions from 20 years ago – so what is stopping us? And how do we push through these obstacles?


  2. Imagine just leaving kids to be free, to learn, without finding new terms to describe how schools and teachers might apply so much time, energy and money how to marshall kids into doing what is a natural phenomonen, learning. Sudbury students do well, because staff get out of their way, and don’t seek to organise, direct or coerce them – they couldn’t really, because they probably wouldn’t probably be staff past the next election.


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