What Happens When We Let Students Work the Problem

By AJ Juliani on February 15, 2016

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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