BLC11 Big Take-Away? Problem-finding is the Next Big Thing

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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.

 Cross-posted in my own blog, A Stick in the Sand.



  1. I’m putting the keynote and a few other things together as a new book, finished this week, published for BLC11-ers first of all, entitled The Problem Finders, after the opening to the keynote. I hope it helps people begin that journey of finding a new way of framing learning.

  2. I saw your tweet! Looking forward to the book, Ewan. My plan is to have a model ready to deploy in my IB TOK class this fall. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  3. Looking for unsolved problems and finding ways to unravel its mystery is the best education you can get, but only if you are familiar with most of the basic things around you. Or else, you would only be solving something that has already been tackled before.

  4. To give students problems whose answers are unknown passes the edge of the knowns! Administrators have to teach teachers to let go of some of the control and let discovery begin!

  5. This is all very exciting and I agree with the need to develop collaborative, creative problem solving skills in our students. My struggle is with the balance between this and the Common Core frameworks that predetermine what needs to be learned. Can one find problems with unknown answers that will ‘lead’ students to discover what we have decided they need to know?

  6. Who is Thea Nielsen and why is she so smart? “…Looking for unsolved problems and finding ways to unravel its mystery is the best education you can get, but only if you are familiar with most of the basic things around you.”

    I worry that all the talk in this column is going to be abused as a sophistry for further dumbing down the classroom. Just watch. The defense against that is to make sure young students do learn basic skills and basic facts. Only on that solid foundation can you move–slowly but increasingly– toward more creative and original work.

    This weird fetish for bringing college into the 4th grade was first seen in New Math. It was a disaster because it did not teach knowledge in an appropriate and ergonomic way.

    Bruce Deitrick Price

  7. There is a place for drills and practice. Most of my algebra students cannot add or multiply fractions without a calculator. They have no idea how to do it.



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