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Solving Real Problems

It's time to solve problems in the real world, not just at the end of the chapter.
Girl doing chemistry exercise

Three years ago, sophomore environmental science students at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia needed a problem to solve. But they weren't just looking for any old problem; they wanted a big one, a real-life one that could make a difference in the world—one that would challenge them to be creative, to work in teams, to think and plan and build, and, by the way, to allow them to meet all of the state and local standards for the class.

Here's the question they came up with: "Can we build an inexpensive 'flow process biodiesel generator' that people in developing countries could use to create their own electricity off the grid?" Over the course of the school year, with the help of engineers, environmentalists and scientists both locally and abroad, that's exactly what they did. They built a generator that has two patents pending and shortly thereafter was being used by a school in Guatemala and another in Ecuador to keep the lights and everything else on.

Real Problem-Based Learning

If you haven't noticed it already, collaborative problem solving of realworld issues is exploding around us on the Web, and there is little doubt that as our connections online continue to deepen, there will be more and more opportunities to change the world in big and small ways. In fact, according to the National Council of Teachers of English, literate 21st-century students need to be able to "build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally."

One of the many pressing questions educational leaders need to be asking right now is "How are students in my school finding and solving real-world problems with others as a regular part of their school experience?" It's a not-so-easy switch from the traditional form of instruction that goes on in most schools, instruction that really gives students very little license to do real-world work for real-world audiences. Obviously, it requires teachers who are problem solvers themselves, who are willing to "teach" in classrooms where they don't know all the answers, and who can align a much less concrete process of learning to the always concrete expectations of the district and state.

Fortunately, more and more online spaces are beginning to model what real problem solving looks a perfect example. With over 372,000 members, this site provides online spaces where students and teachers work on issues that deal with the environment, health, media and many more areas. Because of its global nature, it's a great place to start in terms of exploring the cross-cultural aspects of problem solving that NCTE advocates.

Creative Problem Solving

Other online sites provide some great models for the types of problems that students could work on in their own classrooms. Common is just such a site, a "collaborative network of creative professionals." One great example from Common is the creation of a bicycle company in a depressed area of Alabama as a way of bringing back jobs and a local economy. But the best part is that the bikes will be built with "Alabamboo," a crop of strong and sturdy bamboo that the Alabama climate and environment is perfect for. What businesses might students build in their own communities that could have a positive environmental and economic impact? Or, take InnoCentive, a site that awards cash prizes to individuals or groups who solve problems that are posted. It's a great start to the problem-solving conversation.

It's time we stop asking our students to solve the problems at the end of the chapter and, instead, ask them to start taking a real role in finding answers to the questions that confound us. They may just end up changing the world in amazing ways.

Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at