Orchestrating Compelling Problems for Students to Solve (Better Learning For Schools #31)


Young people’s brains are designed to solve problems. Once they are invested in a something challenging, they will often do whatever it takes to work out a solution. One of my own son’s, for example, heard about an extracurricular trip that some of his elementary school friends were going on in order to retrace the route of the Santa Fe Trail. The trail itself was part of a unit of study that they had completed earlier on in the year.

From what he was told, the trip would be a chance to hang out with his friends for several days, see some sites, and do some pretty grown-up stuff along the way. The only problem was that it would be very, very expensive—nearly 1,000 dollars. When he approached my wife and I about it, we could tell immediately that it was something he wanted badly to be a part of.   But we also explained that we didn’t exactly have that kind of money just lying around. We are teachers, after all.

Instead of sighing or whining, he got this look of resolve. He asked us, “Would you let me go if it were cheaper?”

Without thinking, I replied… “Well, maybe if it was like half as much.”

He thought for a second, and said, ”Okay. I will find a way to earn half of the money, and you and mom can come up with the other half.”

He has now spent the last few months shoveling our neighbor’s snow and rounding up people’s old junk to sell at his own, bi-weekly garage sale. He has learned to set goals, how to network, negotiate, and how to fundraise. He has figured that a sign that says, ‘I am raising money for my education,’ works better than a sign that simply says, ‘garage sale.’ He also has learned to draw in customers through the use of his baby-faced, four-year old brother who stands by the sign and waves to each and every passerby. He is invested in the challenge because he has a problem—his own problem—to solve.

Educational research, my own experiences in the classroom, and my son’s fundraising efforts all underscore the need for more problem-based learning in the classroom. In particular, there is a need for teachers to carefully orchestrate compelling problems for students to solve. Albert Einstein once said that, “the formulation of the problem is more essential than the solution” (Einstein & Infeld).

Therefor, it behooves teachers to spend as much time as we can on the front-end of instruction—working to design thought-provoking problems that spark and propel student learning. After reading through every book I could on Problem-based Learning (PBL), visiting classrooms, and trying things out on my own students, there are a at least 4 types of problems that really seem to foster student interest and effort (Dean & Marzano, 2013; Hattie, 2009).

1.  Historical Investigation

These types of challenges start with a teacher clearly describing a historical event and then identifying to students what is and what is not known or agreed upon. At this point, the teacher offers up a couple of possible scenarios, then students work to seek out and analyze what evidence determines the plausibility of each scenario. For example, students can seek to examine conflicting versions presented by scholars regarding The Boston Massacre or President Roosevelt’s role in the events leading up to Pearl Harbor.

2.  Decision-Making

Decision making challenges start by describing the alternatives being considered by a single person or by a group of people. Students then work in groups or with a teacher to identify the criteria that should be used to influence decision-making. Collaboratively, they rate each alternative based on the scale criteria and then re-evaluate the criteria based on the result. For example, students can predict who should be considered for admittance to a particular sports or musical hall-of-fame.

3.  Problem-solving

Problem-solving challenges are similar to decision-making challenges to some extent. However, instead of starting with a description of alternatives, problem-solving challenges start by working with students to identify a goal…as well as related barriers and constraints. Students then work to identify and try out solutions, and then seek to explain to what extent their solution was successful. Based on the degree of their success, other solutions are identified and experimented with. For example, I visited a class who was working to gather and send shoes over to a partner-school in war-torn countries over-seas where mail delivery often proves difficult. The students worked to gather shoes, to comply with packing procedures, and to fund-raise to help ship the items. When their first shipment failed to arrive, they tried alternative solutions for subsequent shoe donations.

4.  Invention

Invention challenges capitalize on students’ desire to improve the world around them. These activities start by identifying and describing a situation or need in the real world, then working with students to identify specific standards or designs that would improve the situation. In groups, students brainstorm ideas and then evaluate their ideas based on forecasted likelihood for success. Then they draft, sketch or build a prototype to improve the situation. For example, as part of a unit on natural resources, I recently watched students design and share working models of pet-wash stations that sought to conserve and reuse water.

Our student’s brains are designed to solve problems. So…let’s give them problems. Well-orchestrated problems are authentic, student-centered, and require collaboration and critical thinking. They can be rooted in history, decision-making, goal-attainment or even invention. Problem-based learning reminds us that some of the most important work we do as educators is when we invest on the ‘front-end’ of learning. When we seek to provide students with authentic challenges, we are reawakened to one, simple reality—that our students—and my own son—all work the hardest when they have a really compelling problem to solve. My problem—how am I going to come up with 500 dollars?


Dean, C. B., & Marzano, R. J. (2013). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Boston, Mass: Pearson Education.

Einstein, A., & Infeld, L. (1966). The Evolution of Physics (1938).

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Curtis Chandler can be contacted at:

Twitter @curtischandler6
Blog:  Better Learning For Schools
Email:  curtisc@essdack.org

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