Trust The Children

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Teaching Kids a Problem Solving Process

One of the major complaints I have with a lot of education is it's focus on content. A teacher shares knowledge about some topic, and tests for recall of that knowledge. Traditional instruction calls this process learning. Even formulae in math are often applied without a background understanding of how they came to be in the first place. The problem with this idea for me is that you can never learn enough content to solve all the problems you are facing. Let's say you get taught biology and then call yourself "educated". You mastered the content, passed the tests and call it good.

Well you go out into the world, and encounter a novel problem. Low and behold, the problem is an anthropology problem. So you are hosed. You go back to school, master anthropology and figure you are finally "educated". However when you go back out into the real world, you encounter an unexpected problem and the problem is related to history, of which you have little or no content in your brain. So you go back to school and learn history, only to go out into the real world, only to find a psychology problem. And so it goes. You can never learn enough content, you can never put enough content into your head to solve all the varied problems life is going to present to you.

Actually it's even worse than that. What could be worse? You can't go to public gatherings and discuss things half way intelligently, because someone is always talking about something you didn't study. So no polite discussion, you become a social outcast, and spend the rest of your life as a hermit or hermitess.

What is missing is that content is NOT king. It is important, but without a process, or a framework or a method of attacking problems for which you don't already have the answer for in your brain, you are in trouble.

There are many processes or problem solving frameworks that help our kids get to a solution, when at first they don't have content knowledge. When I give models for problem solving to my children in addition to content, I teach them HOW to fish instead of giving them a fish. I encourage them to feel the success of learning on their own, and becoming independent of me.

So here is the problem solving process in this article mentioned in the previous post: (this article is about Problem Based Learning in a Medical School Environment)

The Educational Goals for the Learners

The facilitator’s (home school parent's) overall educational goals for the students were for them to be able to
(1) explain disease processes responsible for a patient’s symptoms and signs and describe what interventions can be undertaken,
(2) employ an effective reasoning process,
(3) be aware of knowledge limitations,
(4) meet knowledge needs through self-directed learning and social knowledge construction, and 5) evaluate their learning and performance.

So if these are the goals for the learners, what were the goals that the "teacher/parent" needed to keep in mind for their performance?

The facilitator’s (parent's) performance goals were to
(1) keep all students active in the learning process,
(2) keep the learning process on track,
(3) make the students’ thoughts and their depth of understanding apparent, and
(4) encourage students to become self-reliant for direction and information.

Isn't this cool? It is to me.

To paraphrase, for my kids at home:

1) Help them identify the real problem
2) Help them think through what steps the need to take to get to the solution
3) What do they already know about the problem?
4) Where do they need to go to get more information?
5) Review with them after they have come up with their best solution the process they went though and the results it led them too, in order to reinforce the success they just had.

Doing this, enables our children to carry this sign on their chest... CAPABLE.

Late Night Reading

I am reading, tonight, yet another journal article for one of my graduate classes. I do a fair amount of this kind of reading. I don't understand everything I read the first time, but usually on the second pass, I begin to catch more of the meaning. Overall, I am getting better at it after a year working on a Masters Degree than at the beginning.

This article is about Problem Based Learning. But as I read, I feel I am reading a story about the model home schooling environment contrasted with the traditional public school approach. While not all public classrooms operate in a "teacher-tell" manner, many still do. Teachers sadly, end up often teaching as they were taught, if not in every respect, at least in most fundamental ways. I felt to share two excerpts to demonstrate what I mean...

Excerpt One

The goals and beliefs that teachers hold help frame the strategies that they implement. Schoenfeld (1998), through detailed analyses of expert and novice teachers, examined how teachers’ knowledge, goals, and beliefs lead them to implement action plans. In his study, the novice teacher used a teacher-centered approach, (1) asking known-answer questions, (2) listening to students’ responses, and then (3) evaluating the responses. For example, when teaching a lesson on exponents, this teacher (1a) asked for the answer to a problem, (2a) the student responded correctly that he subtracted, and the teacher (3a) answered “OK,” an evaluation of the response. The teacher asked the student what he subtracted and then elaborated on the student’s correct response. All this proceeded according to the teacher’s plan. This teacher believed that the students’ responses provided springboards for teacher explanations. When students’ responses diverged (as in the student didn't have the correct answer), [the teacher's] limited pedagogical content knowledge prevented him from adapting his plan. Later, on a more difficult problem, students’ responses were not what the teacher expected, and the teacher had to generate an alternative example. TThe students did not understand the connection between the new example and the original problem, and they did not produce an answer that the teacher could use to build an explanation as in the earlier example. he teacher did not have an understanding of how incorrect student responses could be a window into their understanding and how these understandings could be used to focus discussions.

Excerpt Two

In contrast, Schoenfeld (1998) found very different results in the analyses of expert teachers (Jim Minstrell and Deborah Ball). Minstrell viewed learning as a sense-making activity and used questioning in productive ways. The lesson studied focused on issues of measurement in everyday contexts. Rather than being driven by a topic from the text, as with the novice teacher, the lesson was driven by problem-centered discussions. The teacher used questioning to guide student thinking. In particular, he used a technique called the reflective toss. (otherwise known as rephrasing) In the reflective toss, the teacher takes the meaning of a student statement and throws responsibility for elaboration back to the student. (ie. "Can you share your thoughts using other words?) He used these statements to help students clarify meaning, consider a variety of views, and monitor their own thinking. For example, as students were discussing how one might decide what number might be a best value from a list of measurements, a student noted that one number in a list was repeated several times. Minstrell asked the student for clarification (using the rephrasing technique) and if there were any other repeated numbers. Another student proposed what was essentially a formula for a weighted average. This was unexpected. As Minstrell asked the students for further explanation, they developed a formula for calculating the weighted average. Ball’s classroom was more student-centered; her goal was to develop a particular type of intellectual community in which the pursuit of mathematical ideas was highly valued. She juggled competing goals as the students and teachers co-constructed the agenda. She started her elementary mathematics class by asking students for comments on the previous days’ lessons. They then discussed issues related to their understanding.

What are the characteristics of a model PBL, or home schooling teacher? (Substitute PBL Teacher or PBL Facilitator with Homeschooling parent)

The PBL method requires students to become responsible for their own learning. The PBL teacher is a facilitator of student learning, and his/her interventions diminish as students progressively take on responsibility for their own learning processes. This method is characteristically carried out in small, facilitated groups and takes advantage of the social aspect of learning through discussion, problem solving, and study with peers (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). The facilitator guides students in the learning process, pushing them to think deeply, and models the kinds of questions that students need to be asking themselves, thus forming a cognitive apprenticeship (Collins et al., 1989). As a cognitive apprenticeship, PBL situates learning in complex problems (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). Facilitators make key aspects of expertise visible through questions that scaffold student learning through modeling, coaching, and eventually fading back some of their support. In PBL the facilitator is an expert learner, able to model good strategies for learning and thinking, rather than providing expertise in specific content. This role is critical, as the facilitator must continually monitor the discussion, selecting and implementing appropriate strategies as needed. As students become more experienced with PBL, facilitators can fade their scaffolding until finally the learners adopt much of their questioning role. Student learning occurs as students collaboratively engage in constructive processing. (A subtle sales pitch for larger families ;-).

(The article is entitled "Goals and Strategies of a Problem-based Learning Facilitator, by
Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver and Howard S. Barrows,

The article begins with a simple example of a gradeschool classroom and moves to a medical school, where Problem Based Learning is used in much the same way to prepare medical students over a two year period for their NBDE-1 exam.

My point is sharing this, is to reinforce how simple teaching and learning at home can be. As I have asked my children about their home schooling experience, it was the projects, and major work projects like adding on to the house, and remodeling, and building of go karts and hover crafts, that presented meaningful problems and validating solutions as they figured it out.

Maybe this isn't for everyone. I am so thankful it was for our kids and family though.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

How Hard Do You Want Him To Try To Help You?

Got this from my son David who heard it in a talk by President Clark at BYUI. I think I have this right. Which quadrant are you in vis-a-vis your children? Which quadrant are the best parents in? Which quadrant is God in as it relates to us as His children?