Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Ultimate Problem Based Learning Experience (Dewey would be Proud)

My sons and I (and nephew Tony) recently returned from our annual canoe trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in Northern Minnesota.  Throughout this trip, I began to reflect on our collective experience of 60 or more trips. (Myself-30, Derek-17, Ben-13)  Initially, my goal was to ensure my sons had a positive experience in the BWCAW so they would want to return again and again. Mission accomplished. In doing so, I did everything while they played, fished, and explored.  Over the past several trips, I started asking more questions (i.e. What do you think?) and turning over some of the duties.  I am not going to be on their canoe trips indefinitely, so they needed to learn things on their own.  As I turned over the duties, first I had them assist me, then had them “do” with my guidance, and finally on their own to figure things out.  Here are few examples:
  • setting up tent
  • starting a fire
  • hanging the food pack
  • portaging
  • filleting a fish
  • reading a map

Based on the number of trips we have made, the BWCAW obviously appeals to Derek and Ben’s interests, which is a key ingredient of Problem/Project Based Learning (PBL) experiences.  Throughout the most recent trip, I realized that everything we do on our canoe trips is based on the premise of PBL.  For Example, John Larmer of the Buck Institute for Education (
describes the steps of Problem Based Learning:
  1. presentation of an “ill-structured” (open-ended, “messy”) problem
  2. problem definition or formulation (writing a “problem statement”)
  3. generation of a “knowledge inventory” (creating a list of “what we know about the problem” and “what we need to know”)
  4. generation of possible solutions
  5. formulation of learning issues for self-directed and coached learning
  6. sharing of findings and solutions
Through the gradual release of my “teaching” vs. my sons “learning,” I have noticed that even after everything I had thought I taught them, mistakes were still made.  This should be a wake up call for all educators, because only when Derek and Ben were allowed to do a task on their own instead of me showing and telling, did they complete the tasks more efficiently and accurately.  Mostly through their struggles and failures were they really allowed to learn and achieve mastery.  I enjoyed watching the learning process take place through collaboration, critical thinking, failure, and redos.
This is also what John Dewey referred to as experiential learning; “Failure is instructive.  The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”
It was challenging for me to watch Derek and Ben struggle through certain things when I knew the correct answer or a better way to do something.  For example, I watched them put up the tent incorrectly.  They worked their way through some of the obstacles, then would ask me for assistance.  I would respond with a question such as, what do you think or have you thought of.  Another example was map reading and finding portages.  Let’s put it this way, we added some distance to our paddles as they read the map to find the portages.  I knew where the portages were, but I allowed them to figure it out after they were not able to find it the first time.
Not all teachers can take their students camping or into a wilderness area to provide such experiences, but we can allow students to learn based on some choices and their passions.  Telling students what they need to know for the test under the term "education" is doing a huge disservice to our students.  It is time we realize John Dewey’s philosophy and vision for “...all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth.” As educators, we must continue to determine ways to incorporate Project/Problem Based Learning into our curriculum.

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