In the movie, The Martian, there was a quote in the last scene that really hit home, when thinking about my role as a teacher and leader. It comes from lead character Mark Watney who was stranded on Mars and had to solve what seemed like a countless number of problems in order to even have a remote chance of being rescued:

“When I was up there, stranded by myself, did I think I was going to die? Yes. Absolutely, and that’s what you need to know going in because it’s going to happen to you. This is space. It does not cooperate. At some point everything is going to go south on you. Everything is going to go south and you’re going to say ‘This is it. This is how I end.’

Now you can either accept that or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math, you solve one problem. Then you solve the next one, and then the next and if you solve enough problems you get to come home.”

It comes back to what matters: Our attitude and our actions.

Mark’s opinion of his situation did not matter. It was only his attitude towards “working the problem” and his actions that solved one problem after another that mattered.

So, let me ask you the question: How often do we let students “work the problem” in our schools and classrooms?

Do we give students a chance to figure it out on their own or in a small group? Do we challenge them to solve a challenge in a fixed amount of time? Do we let them struggle and fail to the point where they have to work the problem and find a solution?

When I Finally Let Them Work the Problem…

In most classrooms, including my own as a teacher, this almost never happened. Normally, they would struggle and we would throw a grade onto their assessment/project/activity and move on. Usually if they didn’t “get it” we would give them the answer eventually and then move on. In fact, in my daily practice as a teacher, I’m ashamed to say that I often let one student solve the problem or come up with the solution and share it with the class. And then we moved on.

Twenty-five other students were still “working the problem” yet because one student had the answer and raised their hand, I often said that was good enough and moved on.

Then, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, my teaching world was turned upside down when my students started the 20% Project in my class. 

Now every student was “working their own problem” and stumbling, struggling, and fighting to find a solution of how to learn, make, create, and launch an idea out into the world.

For the first time as a teacher, I was truly facilitating a workspace where every kid was going through a design thinking process in order to solve a problem and create a solution.

I took this same process and applied it to many other projects throughout the years as a teacher and leader (Project: Global Inform, 2030Schools Project, Writer’s Bootcamp, The Einstein Project, etc).

In each case, students found a problem, worked the problem, and create a solution that they could launch to an authentic audience. This process was framed around the idea of Design Thinking.

Design thinking is a flexible framework for getting the most out of the creative process. It is used in the arts, in engineering, in the corporate world, and in social and civic spaces. You can use it in every subject with every age group. It works when creating digital content or when building things with duct tape and cardboard.

When I started connecting with other teachers (like John Spencer) we saw that this framework was shared but hard to explain to other K-12 teachers and school leaders.

We created an adapted K-12 design thinking cycle that’s perfect for students of any age, level, and subject area. Here’s the description of the design thinking cycle that John Spencer and I developed in anticipation for our upcoming book LAUNCH: Using the Design Thinking Process to Boost Creativity and Innovation in Every Classroom. Note that we added a final phase that’s often missing from design thinking models. It’s the idea of launching. It’s the belief that after students have designed their work, they should send it to an authentic audience.

The LAUNCH Cycle

Although there are many models for design thinking, we have developed the student-friendly LAUNCH Cycle. We created an acronym to help make it easier to remember:

L: Look, Listen, and Learn
In the first phase, students look, listen, and learn.The goal here is awareness. It might be a sense of wonder at a process or an awareness of a problem or a sense of empathy toward an audience.

A: Ask Tons of Questions
Sparked by curiosity, students move to the second phase, where they ask tons of questions.

U: Understanding the Process or Problem
This leads to understanding the process or problem through an authentic research experience. They might conduct interviews or needs assessments, research articles, watch videos, or analyze data.

N: Navigate Ideas
Students apply that newly acquired knowledge to potential solutions. In this phase, they navigate ideas. Here they not only brainstorm, but they also analyze ideas, combine ideas, and generate a concept for what they will create.

C: Create a Prototype
In this next phase, they create a prototype. It might be a digital work or a tangible product, a work of art or something they engineer. It might even be an action or an event or a system.

H: Highlight and Fix
Next, they begin to highlight what’s working and fix what’s failing. The goal here is to view this revision process as an experiment full of iterations, where every mistake takes them closer to success.

Launch to an Audience

Then, when it’s done, it’s ready to launch. In the launch phase, they send it to an authentic audience. They share their work with the world!

This was the piece of the 20% Project and future projects I did with my students (like Project: Global Inform, 2030Schools, Flat Classroom Project, NetGen Ed Project) — that took it to the next level!

Students can’t solve problems and create solutions only to share it with 20 other people. They’ve got to take the final step of launching it into the world to a real authentic audience.

Are You Ready to Let Your Students Work the Problem?

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Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • Ben Morris says:

    I’ve read so much about 20% time and would love to implement it, but I don’t have a clue how to find the time. Have you blogged about it or do you have resources you can point me towards?

    Also, can’t wait to begin implementing LAUNCH!

  • John Bennett says:

    Working on challenging problems is indeed the key to Effective Learning. I always asked for proposals (with their reasoning included for my review and feedback. My reasoning was pretty simple: I did not want such a simplistic topic that precluded their being able to show their capabilities; and I didn’t want such a difficult topic that – again – precluded their being able to make significant progress.

    By the way, some of my best student team efforts were on a situation I introduced that, as I clearly informed them, I wasn’t sure had a useful outcome. Their task was to choose a problem, organize and understand it, address it as best they could, AND present their efforts, being clear on their remaining concerns TOGETHER with a discussion of those concerns!

  • Chris Nurczyk says:

    I think what you have developed is good and useful, and kudos to you for the work you’ve put in. But why don’t we call it what it is? Scientific Methodology. The Scientific Method was basically what Adler and Dewey (in his Act of Complete Thought – he admitted it) were aiming at. No, Scientific Method is not a rigid framework (I certainly don’t teach it that way), but steps we build into a system of thought to solve a problem. It’s an ‘erector set’ of thought – we use it to properly structure our problem-solving. Our children need a guided system of thinking to solve problems. You are offering a fresh approach – I plan to take a close look and use it. I think we need to remember where we come from – just a thought.

    • John Bennett says:

      Sorry, but every time I read about the Scientific Method, there is that step of forming a hypothesis, and then testing it. No scientists nor any engineers I know (I are one…) form hypotheses. We build understanding through considering and assessing material available, brainstorm options, most likely model / test promising features, select the most promising for modeling, prototyping, and testing. THEN, most different from Scientific Method efforts, we assess, reflect, and refine previous choice and continue. I DO NOT BELIEVE IT’S DIFFERENT WORDING ONLY when I say we don’t select a NEW hypothesis.

      Do your students a favor and do the problem solving, discarding references to the Scientific Method! Your students will be doing a lot of problem solving during their lives, all of them; and for those who become scientists, I bet they’ll be comfortable doing problem solving as well!

      When a faucet drips, when a roof shingle needs attention, when a new light fixture needs installing, when there’s an unexpected traffic jam, …., you and your students will find treating these as problems to be solved will yield a better answer quicker. Can’t beat that win-win situation!!!

      • AJ Juliani says:

        This is an interesting discussion. I appreciate the Scientific Method, and I’m all for teaching it in our schools. However, the LAUNCH Cycle is a bit different. First, the acronym was created to make it easier to understand and apply to multiple different experiences and learning possibilities. I’ll also agree with John in saying that it’s about the iterative process and the cycle supports failing, making, brainstorming, prototyping. Does it always happen in that same order? Of course not. But I love seeing how this is already being applied in classrooms and work environments around the world.

  • Jeffrey Krebs says:

    Hello, AJ:
    I’m delighted to see this very accessible and inspiring framework for design thinking as I believe it offers students and educators a path to a very engaging learning process that is highly relevant to whatever these students will do in the future. I work with recent graduates coming from very good university programs who have rigorous backgrounds in theory but limited experience in applied problem solving (whatever the domain). One of the biggest problems they have coming from this context is determining how to get started–they often need someone else to break the problem down for them before they can begin. This framework makes the point very clear that you work the process and iterate based on new learnings and feedback–so the assumption is that your first effort can be improved on and that is good. This sidesteps the classic problem of fear of failure preventing the first step, and gives them permission to start working the problem. I’m delighted to see this approach gaining traction in K-12 schools.
    I’m curious about what this looks like for earlier years students, say K-3. I wonder if this approach helps channel the natural curiosity and experimentation of children and helps avoid the stifling of that curiosity through too much structure in instruction? I’d love to hear others’ experience in this regard, including any practical guidance on introducing this approach to colleagues as well as students.
    Thanks!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks so much for the feedback Jeff! One of the things John and I discussed while building out this framework is how we see the cycle in our own lives. Whether it is writing curriculum, doing a project, or rolling out a 1:1 initiative (currently doing that) we have to go through the process. We are releasing our book LAUNCH in May and can’t wait to share stories and examples on the blog (and in the book) in the next couple of months!

  • […] I’m a firm believer in keeping the focus on what’s really important: the students. If student motivation and higher engagement is truly the desired end game, then we as teachers must adapt right along with our students in our classrooms. To see that some classrooms look the same now as they did 70 years ago is shameful. The students we share our classrooms with don’t know life without constant connectivity, wi-fi, and a global audience. Outside the windows of our classroom is a dynamic, fast-paced, and ever-changing world full of choices. How can we expect our students to solve problems and make choices independently if we constantly solve their problems and make their choices for them? Our classroom environments should be conducive to open collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. This simply cannot be done when kids are sitting in rows of desks all day. Consider involving your students in a classroom redesign project with the LAUNCH cycle design thinking mentioned on A.J. Juliani’s blog. […]

  • Denise says:

    This year I taught my class the response to HOW DO WE SHOW RESPECT? Every time I ask this question aloud, they respond:
    Look. Listen and Learn!

    After much conversation with my students about what respect looks like, sounds like, and feels like, we ended up circling 3 words that stood out and they became our mantra for the year. How cool is it that I stumbled upon your LAUNCH idea and it uses the same language? Very cool.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I understand this concept and have helped history, science, and math teachers use it (even though I am a relatively new teacher). So…how do I apply this to the English content? A piece of fiction doesn’t have to be solved. It needs to be analyzed. If you can help me understand this on a daily English basis for sophomores through Seniors, I would appreciate your thoughts.

  • […] I’m a firm believer in keeping the focus on what’s really important: the students. If student motivation and higher engagement is truly the desired end game, then we as teachers must adapt right along with our students in our classrooms. To see that some classrooms look the same now as they did 70 years ago is shameful. The students we share our classrooms with don’t know life without constant connectivity, wi-fi, and a global audience. Outside the windows of our classroom is a dynamic, fast-paced, and ever-changing world full of choices. How can we expect our students to solve problems and make choices independently if we constantly solve their problems and make their choices for them? Our classroom environments should be conducive to open collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. This simply cannot be done when kids are sitting in rows of desks all day. Consider involving your students in a classroom redesign project with the LAUNCH cycle design thinking mentioned on A.J. Juliani’s blog. […]

  • […] Juliani, A. J. (2016?). What Happens When We Let Students Work the Problem. Blogpost. Retrieved from http://ajjuliani.com/work-the-problem/ […]

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