Posts Tagged problem solving

Play Predict Observe Explain (PPOE)

For a while the idea of allowing students time to play and explore with equipment or other experimental setups has been an informal part of the learning in my classrooms.  One place I have been doing this since I started teaching is with microscopes. The wonder of microscopes for me has always been seeing the amazing microscopic world around us.  Yet, there is nothing more boring than a prepared slide of cork cells. While a water sample from a nearby creek or pond can keep students exploring for hours, as they chase protozoa and other microbes around a slide and in the process gain the fluency of microscopy skills required to go deeper.

More recently I have been trying to be more deliberate in designing learning that involves this element of playful experimentation.  One way I have found helps with the planning is to add an extra P (play) to the POE (predict, observe, explain) lesson sequence.


An example of such a lesson is the comparative reaction of  sand from Sydney beaches to that of sand from Sydney sandstone with acid (HCl). The beach sand reacts producing bubbles, while the sandstone sand doesn’t.  I gave the necessary equipment (sand and acid ) to my year 9 science class and with some basic instruction asked them to first predict what would happen and then explore with the reactions of the different sands and acid.  I then gave them microscopes to have a closer look at the sand and asked them to explain the obvious difference in reactions.  It was not until some of the students decided to carry out the reaction under the microscope that they spotted the difference between the sands.  There are obvious particles present in the beach sand that react  while there are others obviously not reacting. And at this point, with the curiosity of the students at its highest,  I stepped in with some explicit teaching of reactions between acid and carbonates (shell bits) and the lack of carbonates in Sydney sandstone.  We were studying some geology and the learning outcome  was about what we can infer about the history and formation of rocks and past environments and not so much the chemistry involved. The hands on problem solving lead to students producing a much better explanation of the differences and a much deeper understanding of the geology involved.

A final reflection is that the playing, predicting and observation do not have to be sequential and that in fact they can occur simultaneously or even in reverse order as observations can lead to new predictions and new play.

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Helmet Heads a PBL experience

An article, ‘Summer of hard knocks puts teens at risk‘ in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH, 2013)  reports on the increase of injuries due to the skateboard and scooter accidents and the need to wear helmets.  The article suggests that the best way to get teens to wear helmets is for them to educate each other of the importance. The article had me reflecting on a recently completed unit on physics with my year 9 students. This unit followed on from a unit spending time developing student questions about the brain, its development and teenage decision processes.  The physics unit includes Newtons laws of motion which screams out to be understood in the light of current enthusiasm for skateboarding, scooter riding, BMX, mountain biking and stunt riding.  All of which have the potential for brain injuries. Thus in this unit (an inquiry / project based learning investigation) students were asked to apply Newtons laws of motion to helmet design and answer the question, how does a helmet protect your head?  They were guided through the running of an investigation to test a helmet they had designed.

The InvestigationHelmet Hd 2012

To model the human brain we used water filled balloons. Adding some validity other questions posed to students included: How can you make your model of the human brain as realistic as possible? What is the mass of an average human brain? How much water would need to be in the balloon?

After setting the scene with some videos on the need for helmets and the issues related to brain injuries as well as conducting an initial test dropping an unprotected water filled balloon at 1m(bounced and survived) and 2m(burst on impact) I was mostly hands off, taking on the role of co-learner. I did incorporate some direct teaching of Newtons laws as the need for them arose.  We had a couple of lessons on research and design, students had to choice building materials from a limited school supplied list (egg cartons, cotton wool, bubble wrap and ice-cream containers) or they were free to source and supply their own alternatives. The students took several different approaches to designing their helmets and we tested them in drop tests of 1m, 2m, 4m and 8m. Only a couple of ‘balloon brains’ survived 8m in their helmets.

 Some thoughts for next time.

What worked well was giving students independence to come up with their own solutions. The construction and testing were highly motivational. One issues that we did not fully resolve was how to fill the balloon to exactly the same amount in a controlled way. Also I filmed the helmet-balloon drops with the thought of analysing the motion and forces, but ran out of time to find a software solution for students to use, something I hoped to resolve over my summer vacation.

Finally after reading the newspaper article I realised that we missed an important step of any project based learning activity, that of reporting to an authentic audience. In this case their peers.

‘The only way that you can get teenagers to wear helmets is if other teenagers say it’s a good idea,” (Associate Professor Owler, quoted in SMH, 2013)


The Sydney Morning Herald (2013) Summer of hard knocks puts teens at risk. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 13 Jan 2013].

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Sustainable Homes (project based learning)

This post describes a module of the Connections to the Land unit. A project based learning approach (PBL) was used as a way of bridging the students growing understanding of our ecological connection to the land together with our real everyday existence. Students were asked to design and build model homes and were  informed the homes would be tested by three measures of sustainability.

1 Water: how much water could the house catch and retain. This was tested by poring one litre of water over the house using a shower hose, water was directed from the roof to measuring cylinders via the student designed guttering system. Also ensuring the home was waterproof helped maintain the structural integrity of the home in the final test.

2 Temperature: does insulation help reduce energy use? Could a home be kept cooler by better design? Data-loggers and temperatures probes were deployed and temperature verses time graphs produced.

3 Structural integrity: the homes were lined up on the oval and using a leaf blower we carried out wind tests… none were quite up to the test.

The students were given a price list of materials and 100 credits to purchase what they required. Most opted to use prefabricated cardboard houses sourced from (See an outline of the information provided to student  here.) Some students loved the ‘shopping’ element of the task and spent considerable time deciding what they would ‘purchase’ while others spent more time ‘tinkering’ with different solutions to the three problems that had been presented.

Overall students thinking was pushed deeper by trying to design solutions to complex real world problems. Problems they will all need to face as our society learns to live in a sustainable way. The groups that produced better, more sustainable homes, spent more time thinking, planning, tinkering, testing, redesign and rebuilding. Good design is often not the first solution you try.

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A driving question is the most important element of a PBL unit

Larmer and Mergendoller (2012) outline 8 factors of good project based learning (PBL):

  1. Significant content
  2. A Need to Know
  3. A Driving Question
  4. Student Voice and Choice
  5. 21st Century Skills
  6. Inquiry and Innovation
  7. Feedback and Revision
  8. Publicly Presented Product

While I agree all are important, I feel the most important factor in good PBL is a great driving question. If you find the right questions then most of the other factors identified are covered automatically. How do you generate a great question and who is the right person to generate that question?

The answer to who should generate the question to me is obvious? If you want students to have a voice and to have choice as well as developing a need to know about some area of content, then they should be generating their own questions. How do we help students generate a question they care about and that covers the content we as educator would like them to learn in a deep and meaningful way?

Here the answer has not always been so obvious but thanks to the work of the Right Question Institute(RQI) and their Question Formation Technique (QFT), the answer is incredibly simple and yet powerful at the same time. So far in my experience it has not failed to generate open-ended questions that cannot be answered by a simple Google search. Outlined here is how question generation was embedded at the heart of a PBL unit.

TeenBrain is a science unit aimed at year 9 students that focused on the content of the traditional control and coordination topic. The unit was divided into four parts; provocation, guiding question development, research and project creation.

The provocation was a series of short videos demonstrating how the teen brain develops from the age of approximately 12 to 25, and how the research presented explains why teenagers often make decisions without fully accounting for risk and long-term consequences. The majority of time during this unit was spent on the research and creation of an information campaign, based on a student generated guiding question.

The most important part of the process in my mind was the generation of a meaningful guiding question. To do this we guided students through the Question Formation Technique from the RQI. The QFT process takes approximately one learning session and is best done in small collaborative groups. Questions generated for research were based on the provocation and a focus question why do teens make stupid choices? As the questions generated for this task were generated by the students themselves they found them intrinsically motivating. Examples of student generated questions include; why do our brains need sleep, is there a best diet for your brain, what can you do to improve memory/learning and how does marijuana effect you brain?

Many of the ‘research’ tasks that formed the third part of this unit were traditional science lesson/experiences, that involved both student centred activities and some direct teaching of concepts, all supported by the on-line learning portal. At the end of every lesson students were ask to reflect on their own groups question and to add a couple of summary sentences relevant to their question in a shared google document. This document became students main resource when they came to designing and creating their information campaign.

Students were instructed to use the information they had collected to produce an information campaign that would influence their peers to make better decisions. Their choice in presentation media was completely open, with some of the following offered as suggestions: a video, info-graphic, poster, magazine article, ios or android app, web-page, comic-strip.  Students worked collaboratively on producing their final product and their focus was maintained by the intrinsic motivation produced from developing their own questions.

John Larmer and John R. Mergendoller, 2012, 8 Essentials for Project-Based Learning, , retrieved from,  Nov 2012

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Thinking, collaboration, problem solving, adaptability and creativity…

21st Century Skills

The ability to think deeply and creativity, to collaborate with others , to problem solve and adapt to rapidly changing situations are described by many as the key skills required for success in the knowledge age of the 21st century.  Is this the complete list?  Should we add other skills? Is one more important than the others? Which should we focus our energies on in the classroom? Will certain focuses produce better outcomes for students than others? How do we go about training students to develop, build and improve on these skills? How do we measure the attainment of  such things?

These are all questions I am taking into the start of this year, with the plan to investigate and apply some of the solutions / answers ( suggestions) I find in my classroom.

Note: Thanks to Kristy Brown’s helpful comment I have also added communication skills,  cultural understanding and sensitivity towards others and knowledge of digital media and technology to the list of  skills for the 21 century.

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