Saturday, January 1, 2011

Balancing real-world problems with real-world results

Gordon, R. (1998). Balancing real-world problems with real-world results. Phi Delta Kappan, 79(5), 390-393.


Gordon's article comments on the challenging reality of using real-world problem-based learning in actual classrooms within the confines of standards and assessments. His concern is that, while teachers love the ideals of authentic learning through real-world problem solving, they become overwhelmed and discouraged when they try to create conditions in their classrooms for such learning to occur. Unlike standards or more rote methods of learning, real-world problems are inherently messy, non-linear, and subjective. Gordon suggests that the essential characteristics of authentic problem-solving (he identifies 6) can be applied to classroom learning without necessarily creating projects that are overwhelming. He recommends using an “experiential learning cycle” where there are student and teacher roles and in which projects or activities increase are scaffolded and adjusted in complexity. For example, an project may be a “scholastic,” “scenario,” or “real-life” challenge—each more demanding and complex. Throughout a project, students cycle through three phases: engagement, exhibition, and reflection, while teachers cycle through the phases of design, coaching, and feedback. Gordon gives some detail for each of these student/teacher phases, as well sample projects for each the three levels of complexity, and concludes by encouraging teachers to use the experiential learning cycle as a tool to build their abilities to incorporate real-world problem-solving projects and thus increase their students' successes too.


Gordon is honest in identifying some of the obstacles teachers face when trying to incorporate real-world problem-solving into their classrooms. His list of six essential traits is helpful in understanding how the benefits of such learning can be accessed even with less complex “scholastic” challenges. Although he gives some details about the experiential learning cycle, he does not explain where the concept comes from or where to go for further resources. He mentions that he (in 1998) works with a program called Education by Design/Critical Skills but it is unclear if they, or he, or some other source, developed the experiential learning cycle concept. There is no data provided on the use of the experiential learning cycle, just encouragements to use is as a tool.


I am curious to look into the “experiential learning cycle” concept further as I appreciated the breakdown of teacher and student phases and the approval of scaffolding projects based on teacher and student readiness. After reading the descriptions of the three levels of complexity, I recognize that myself and my students, being new to project based learning, will be best served by focusing more on an “academic” challenge this first time than necessarily reaching out to the “real-world” level of complexity. I also found the six essential characteristics of real-life problem-solving useful as I explore options for my own exhibition project. In sum, they are:
  1. Students actively solve problems.
  2. People work together.
  3. The work simultaneous engages knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
  4. Learning is driven by knowledge that is essential and meaningful.
  5. Activities are connected.
  6. Students exhibit their work and evaluate them on real-world standards.

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