How the real world works

One school’s experience with problem-based learning

Christopher Federico teaches an economics class at University of Toronto Schools where he heads up the problem-based learning program. (Photo courtesy UTS)

Real-life problems such as racial profiling and income inequality don’t have “correct” answers — so why should problems given to students?

That’s the thinking behind University of Toronto Schools’ recent focus on problem-based learning, which focuses on providing students with lessons that have no correct answer, or even method.

“If I have a class of 30 kids and they all come with a different answer to a problem, I’ve done my job,” says Christopher Federico, a UTS economics teacher and the school’s director of problem-based learning.

UTS principal Rosemary Evans, who created Federico’s second position last year, says it’s important that students learn the skills they will need to address real-life problems as early as possible, such as evaluating sources, exploring multiple perspectives, and questioning assumptions.

Real-world problems can often be “academic in nature,” she says. “They can involve analysis of fiction, or developing a deeper understanding of a scientific concept — but they generally have no one right answer.”

To that end, Federico’s role at UTS sees him helping staff across multiple departments develop so-called “wicked problems” — problems without a “correct” solution because of multiple related, unknown, contradictory, and/or interdisciplinary elements.

“For how long have we been trying to solve poverty? Disease? Gridlock?” Federico says. “We always get hung up on them by focusing very narrowly on one piece of the problem without considering all of the other factors that contribute and all of the other impacts that will come.”

While Federico’s position is only a year old, he’s applied problem-based learning to his own economics classes for years, and it’s been part of UTS’s grade 8 geography program for the past three.

In a project known as Maximum City, grade 8 geography students at UTS learn about urban planning, and how it can lead to more sustainable urban centres and therefore a more sustainable world, UTS geography teacher Rebecca Levere says.

Near the end of the course, the students are challenged to create redevelopment proposals for the University of Toronto, to maximize the institution’s social, environmental and economic sustainability.

“It’s a very authentic problem, and I think that’s an important component of problem-based learning,” Levere says. “It has to be something that’s real and meaningful for the students, not just a contrived, manufactured problem for them to struggle with.”

Since the University of Toronto is frequently soliciting development proposals in real life, students are presented with the university’s proposal requests, and face the same bylaw restrictions that developers would.

In creating the proposals, which have included software mockups, foam models and marketing materials, Levere says, students are challenged, but also inspired.

“They have a stake in what happens to the school, and I think it’s good for them to think about what neighbours want to see happen here, what the university’s priorities are, what we want to see happen here,” she says. “The elements are complex and real and I think the students enjoy that.”

UTS art teacher Charlie Pullen applies problem-based learning to his classes too, encouraging students to develop unique ways of addressing the “problems” created by their artistic ambitions.

For example, UTS has participated in Nuit Blanche, the fall celebration that turns the city into a one-night art museum, for the past five years. The grade 11 and 12 visual arts students who lead each year’s installation are free to push their vision in just about any direction they want.

UTS students collaborate on a problem-based learning project.
UTS students collaborate on a problem-based learning project. (Photo courtesy UTS)

Wacky, wild brainstorming sketches

Each year the students start by brainstorming ideas, which begin as notes or scribbles on a sheet of paper — and anything goes, Pullen says. The raw concepts are then broken down into the components, resources, and skills needed to pull the students’ vision off, with Pullen and the other art teachers guiding them wherever necessary.

“It’s problem-based learning in the sense that we don’t know where the heck it’s going,” Pullen says. “But as teachers we have enough project management experience to help them think, ‘Here’s three ways the project might move forward, and we’ll pursue them all and, if we hit a roadblock with one, then we’ve got two others to fall back on.”

There are no limitations to the media used, and Pullen says they try to keep it interactive: for instance, their first installation was a student-produced video that was rear-projected onto screens installed in many of the school’s windows.

Another was a “rumour factory,” which invited visitors to write rumours on a sheet of paper and place it on a conveyor belt, which meant the students had to figure out how to use a microcontroller, which they programmed to operate a motor attached to a pulley.

“It’s pretty amazing, the wacky, wild brainstorming sketches we start with,” Pullen says.

“Sometimes it’s bigger or smaller, but often we can sit back at the end and say, ‘You know, that was a ridiculous scribble we did months ago, but we managed to make it work.’”

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