Patient Problem Solving in Real Life

We recently had a bit of a communication mishap in our high school.  All intentions were good; we just didn’t communicate well, which led to a series of frustrations amongst teachers.  Luckily, all culminated in a fantastic celebration largely run by a group of students.

The Scenario:
We have started a tradition of giving back with our senior class, and over the years, this has grown into a senior advisory program focused on student leadership.  Each year, a group of seniors, led by a faculty advisor plan and organize events for the student body, and one of these events is our National & Liberation Day celebration.  This year, we got started a bit late, and so time was a huge commodity.

Despite the limited time, our students came through and organized an event better than ever.  This involved a multi-media presentation that included video, poetry, singing, speeches, skits, and an important guest speaker.  It also involved providing a luncheon for 600 people and traditional entertainment.  It is an understatement to say it was a big event.

The Miscommunication:
The nice thing about planning with students is that they don’t see limitations.  Their inexperience makes their imagination run rampant.  This can also be frustrating as they don’t have the experience to consider other factors.  Such as missing classes for rehearsals.  Or scheduling rehearsals at the last minute.  Or forgetting to inform the teachers of the students who needed to be out for the rehearsals.  Hence, the communication frustration.

The Result:
However, the seniors who planned and organized the event and the students who performed were engaged in real-life authentic tasks.  What they accomplished on this day was a truly authentic performance task that involved skills from almost every discipline: logistics, timing, management, planning, performance, translation, communication, problem-solving, and much, much more.

Dan Meyer, talks about patient problem solving in this Ted Talk.

He poses an interesting question: What problem have you ever solved where you have all of the given information up front?  He also confronts textbooks, which have served to neatly wrap up a problem in an unauthentic way.  He quotes Einstein, who said,

“The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.” 

Meyer also states that the content should serve the conversation, the conversation shouldn’t serve the content.

Despite all of this, we still run largely traditional classrooms with these same textbooks that package everything into nicely wrapped sections and chapters.  If we know that students need more real-life, authentic problem-solving tasks, why don’t we provide more?  Why are we so married to what we have always done?  Why can’t we let go of long lists of content that we MUST get through?

I think part of the problem is there is value in the content.  It isn’t a matter of just dropping the content in place of skills.  Ultimately, we have to find a more accessible way to help students learn the content and become more engaged learners.

Our National Day celebration didn’t fit into a nicely wrapped unit or lesson, but I can guarantee that the student organizers learned several valuable skills on this day beyond what they would have gained by sitting in a classroom learning content from a text.  I am NOT saying the content isn’t important; I am saying that what they experienced was of greater value in this particular week.  Now if only we could find a way for them to be this engaged and this successful without having all of the make up work to complete from missing class all week.  As Meyer states, we need more of the authentic in our classrooms every day.  It isn’t an option anymore.  It is something we must do as responsible classroom educators.

3 Replies to “Patient Problem Solving in Real Life”

  1. “We still run largely traditional classrooms with these same textbooks that package everything into nicely wrapped sections and chapters…I think part of the problem is there is value in the content. It isn’t a matter of just dropping the content in place of skills.”

    I think two things are going on here. On the charge that textbooks “package everything into nicely wrapped sections and chapters” – absolutely! When my 9th grade history students see the AP World History textbook, they’re flabbergasted – there is SO MUCH text and no breakout boxes, main ideas questions, graphic chapter summaries, etc. I wonder if the packaging of today’s textbooks isn’t a response to the same impulse that Myers talks about – the expectation on the part of students that problems (and, by extension, readings) be nicely packaged in bite-size morsels. A cupcake version of education, to use a food instead of entertainment metaphor. If this is true, then it is an argument against students leading education, and of textbooks pandering to a market that they see as students, not teachers. As I allude to in my blog post (, I’m not immune to such pressures myself.

    To the other issue – as you say, there is “value in content.” This is especially true in history class. All history teachers like to say that they use the content as a vehicle to teach the skills, but if the skill is “global citizenship,” then you can’t have kids forming a truly thorough opinion without a relatively heavy retention of content with links to specific historical patterns.

    To sum up – we history teachers face dual pressures of the “cupcake” expectations of students and demands of fact memorization as a precondition of our greater goals. Here’s the thing, though – do our students need to leave the class at the end of their freshman or sophomore year as global citizens? I think no – they need, however, to be practicing the skills and evaluating the patterns that will, at a future date, turn them into global citizens. And that’s why I share your value of extracurricular, student-led tasks like the National Day assembly. It’s activities like these that develop our students into PEOPLE, not academics. if these opportunities imbue them with the independence and motivation that they can in the future apply to the acquisition of new knowledge, then it’s entirely worth it.

  2. Hey Tara,

    Remember when we tried to get your students to create videos about language usage at Lincoln? I think that was some attempt to be authentic and give students something real to do, to reflect on, and to engage people in a dialogue around. There were not enough cameras, they edited on my laptop, and there were more technical problems than black flies in those hills. I learned a lot those weeks. I think the kids probably learned something, but I know that they were engaged.

    I think being engaged is what the National and Liberation Day experience seem to be about… engagement in something real, interesting, and messy. Content should be presented as the messy, biased, normative phenomena that it is. It should not be neatly packaged and digestible. Grappling with the mess of content is the initial step and ongoing path in the conversation of learning.

    I’m up at Taipei American School teaching fifth grade. Hope all is well on your side of the world…I like running into real people on the internets.

    1. Hi Ben,
      Great meeting you online. Yes, I remember several experiments in my classroom. I loved working alongside kids, trying to figure things out. I believe they gained a lot of great problem-solving and thinking skills in trial and error and assignments with broad parameters.

      Yes, engagement is the key. I think the only thing you really need to do to engage students is give them ownership. Give them the freedom to own a problem and figure it out. When we scaffold too much or are too helpful, they don’t have to think at all. I also remember doing some things that were unsuccessful, like a collaborative research paper that just did not end up being collaborative. Even then, we problem-solved by having students split up the points received based on who they thought deserved the most. It ended up being a great learning experience for all of us.

      Where are you in your COETAIL journey? Taipei must be great. I remember fondly my days in Taiwan. I am in Kuwait now and very happy here – going on year 8.

      Take Care!

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