Promoting Productive Problem Finding

As an educator dedicated to student-centered learning principles and project-based learning, I cringe to my core when I hear a teacher say, “Come up with 3 ideas for your project, and bring them to class tomorrow.” Students can’t come up with high-quality, relevant, meaningful ideas for investigation on command. Idea-development takes time, creativity, and research; it is a process. Albert Einstein agrees with me. He stated, “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”

In order to conduct a project, there are two key complementary processes: problem findingand problem solving. When students problem find, they engage in a creative process to develop and define an idea for study. They need to consider alternate views or definitions of problems generated. Problem finding requires students to set objectives, define purposes, decide what is interesting, and ultimately determine what to study.

Problem finding is often thought of as something that takes place at the beginning of a project, so students can quickly get to the problem solving phase.

I would challenge this notion and suggest that if we truly want students to own their learning, they need to more deeply explore the development of the idea. Problem finding can be a rigorous, purposeful, and intensive process as part of the continuum of project-based learning.

The important balance of the creative aspects of problem finding, coupled with the logical and analytical aspects of problem solving, can provide students with a more holistic approach to learning where students inquire to learn “about” and “how to” at the same time.

There are great evidence-based strategies that promote productive problem finding. This interactive graphicwas developed for those looking to learn more about problem finding both from a pragmatic practitioner approach as well as for research-based resources.

This post is by Frank LaBanca, a Students at the Center Distinguished Fellow alumn and the founding principal of the Westside Middle School Academy Magnet in Danbury, Connecticut.

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