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From pain to passion: how problem-based learning transforms the classroom

Although children are naturally curious, many teachers struggle with keeping students motivated in school. Nearly all kids start the first grade full of enthusiasm, but as they progress from year to year, their eagerness to learn dwindles. This is an issue that teachers in most educational systems face, wherever they’re located. However, tackling real-world problems can spice up the learning experience.

Maker's Red Box 2020. 12. 30. 10:52

School, to us, meant compulsion, dreary boredom, a place where you had to absorb knowledge of subjects that did not seem worth knowing,

recalled Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, born in 1881, his memories of school in his memoir, The World of Yesterday. More than a hundred years later, his words still ring true for a lot of students.

The problem, in part, stems from the fact that the traditional school system is built on extrinsic motivation.

Teachers experience the drawbacks of kids studying for grades on a daily basis. It’s especially difficult to hold students’ attention now, in the time of a global pandemic, during online classes. Many teachers are on the lookout for innovative solutions, but the current system requires standardized education. Even though kids can work much harder, and even seek out challenges themselves, when they’re driven by intrinsic motivation.

The cover of the Dec. 14, 2020 issue of Time magazine with Gitanjali Rao, first-ever Kid of The Year (Foto: Sharif Hamza for Time)

Enhancing intrinsic motivation with digital tools

A great way to elicit and sustain intrinsic motivation is getting students to work on real-world problems. Digital education offers invaluable help in this, as the versatility of digital tools allows kids to develop according to their interests.

This is how in 2020, 15-year-old Gitanjali Rao became Time Magazine’s First-Ever Kid of the Year. Her inventions offer solutions to the problems of our time. The high schooler used a microcontroller to design a device which can detect lead in drinking water and prevent children’s harmful exposure to the chemical in their household.

However, not everyone is as clued up on the possible uses of microcontrollers, and not all digital education tools can develop and motivate kids adequately. It takes a lot of effort from everyone to leave the traditional school system behind. And that’s where problem-based learning comes into the picture.

But how does it work? And how is it a win-win for students and teachers alike? Here are the most important things you need to know.

1. Understanding the kids’ perspective

When people work on projects they care about, they’re willing to work longer and harder,

writes Mitchel Resnick, one of the creators of Scratch and professor of learning research at MIT Media Lab. A student of 20th-century education reformer Seymour Papert, Resnick has concluded after decades of research that the four key components of creative learning are projects, passion, play and peers.

Finding passion projects to kickstart the learning process (Foto: Maker's Red Box)

2. More freedom, more commitment

It might sound like a contradiction, but teachers using Maker’s Red Box curriculums often tell us that if students are given freedom, they not only make the most of it but deliver astounding performances. Kids who are used to the rigid school framework feel liberated when there’s no set outcome that everyone’s expected to achieve. Instead, they can look for unique solutions to a problem they’ve selected.

3. STEAM for all

One of the most pressing challenges facing today’s school systems is teaching STEAM subjects. With problem-based learning, we can engage even those who are less interested in such topics. For example, if we’re teaching Mendel’s genetic principles, we should choose a problem related to the students’ daily lives, which they won’t be able to solve without applying Mendel’s laws. This will help the kids understand and remember the material, and apply their knowledge later on.

4. When theory and practice meet

Problem-based learning goes hand-in-hand with hands-on learning. If we ask our students to design sustainable systems that will ensure the survival of people on Mars, they can also model these solutions. This way they learn abstract concepts experientially, through working together, not just in theory. If their interest is sparked early on, the experience of making is enough in itself to keep them going.

5. Sense of achievement as a driving force

According to Mark Lepper, a key figure in developmental psychology and the research of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation,

the best activities are challenging yet achievable for students.

This is one of the guiding principles of Maker’s Red Box curriculums, too: the kids gradually proceed from completing easy tasks to building complex creations. In our experience, with careful planning, a sense of achievement is guaranteed for each and every student.

Let's start rethinking education in a way that teachers can spend much more time with their students (Foto: Maker's Red Box)

6. The teacher’s role: from examiner to mentor

Since students work on individual projects instead of going through pre-set materials, the role of the teacher also changes. They act as a mentor, not as an instructor. This allows a more supporting relationship, where the usual hierarchy may be reversed, which can also boost students’ confidence. In our sessions, kids usually exceed expectations when it comes to their familiarity and consciousness of sustainability-related topics. And it fills them with such pride that they have something new to say to their teacher!

7. Evaluation reimagined

With problem-based learning, the focus of evaluation shifts, too: the teacher concentrates on how much students’ skills have improved. Those who do not perform well in lexical knowledge-based school assessments can make significant progress by their own individual standards in the motivating environment of digital makerspaces. Feedback also helps children set themselves new aims and new paths.

What’s next?

All this doesn’t mean that we should do away with extrinsic motivational tools altogether. What is crucial is striking a balance between extrinsic and intrinsic motivational factors, as Mark Lepper suggests. Current educational systems leave very little room for teachers to set personalized problems and to mentor students. In middle and high school, teachers deliver two or three lessons a week to the same class of students, which equals roughly 2 hours per student in a whole term.

So the first step should be rethinking education in a way that teachers can spend much more time with their students.

In other words, it’s time to accept that individual interests can only be accommodated in the classroom if we reduce the size of the curriculum – but enhance the value of what’s been learned.

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