An architectural error turns into a relevant opportunity for Problem Based Learning

An architectural error turns into a relevant opportunity for Problem Based Learning

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post on mistakes, explaining how many can be used as excellent teaching tools. A couple of days ago, while I was reading the Tribune, I found an article about a glaring architectural error that could be used as a great study for Problem Based Learning (“PBL”) in any late elementary or middle school classroom.

If you need a quick review of the theory behind PBL, take time to study it in more depth from two experts in the field, Sheila Gallagher and Joyce VanTassel-Baska (edifying power points). VanTassel-Baska provides a succinct, but excellent definition: Problem-based learning is an instructional strategy …that, through student and community interest and motivation, provides an appropriate way to ‘teach’ sophisticated content and high-level process…all while building self efficacy, confidence, and autonomous learner behaviors.

As you can see, there are a lot of advantages to PBL, particularly its empowering, hands on, and open-ended nature. I think about PBL—almost like a recipe--with some common ingredients that can be supplemented with different fact patterns. And they yield a number of intriguing—and even unexpected--products. The basic elements are:

A loosely defined problem; in this case, the loosely designed problem arises from a structural flaw in a still under construction glass building in London; Londoners call it the Walkie Talkie Tower. For two hours a day, this building generates such intense heat that recently, that heat was able to melt plastic off a jaguar parked 37 stories below. Not only that, nearby business owners “pointed to sun damage on their buildings and carpet burns.” New Tower Turns the Sun on London, Chicago Tribune, Section 1, 9/04/2013, p. 3.

In my experience, a lot of students would be interested in sinking their teeth into solving this architectural disaster. Thinking about it, there’s really more than one problem to solve. Not only do scientific issues come into play, community issues exist as well. And they may have implications to even more grave problems, like climate change or space malfunctions.

A teacher /facilitator and coach: You and I, of course. Parents, too. And we can’t forget the metacognitive piece. While students are wrestling with this problem, teachers need to help students monitor and build their thinking skills by helping students identify ways in which they approach and process the problem.

A student cohort (preferably of like ability peers):  research has shown that students who work with like ability peers make greater advances.

Analysis and inquiry:  my favorite tool is the Revised Blooms Taxonomy:  Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating.

Research tools, including consulting some experts:  The teacher/facilitator might start the analysis by breaking down the issues:  heat, refraction, impact…the list goes on and on.  PBL originated in the medical field.  Doctors would get together and identify a patient’s symptoms. Dialogue about similarities and differences in illnesses helped them structure their medical approach.

An action plan.  Students, with assistance from the teacher, would craft one.  Perhaps some would work on the civic issues—rerouting pedestrians and cars away from this dangerous area and others would focus on a scientific response, designing and redesigning solutions.  Maybe writing to NASA about intense heat.  Or, contacting other architects to see whether they’ve faced this problem and if so, how.  Brainstorming, testing, collaborating and dialoguing about findings every step of the way.  That’s how we hook students and build thinkers.

This week, I found a motivating, relevant, challenge from across the pond.  Next week, they’ll likely be another.  Keep your eye on the news.  It’s the relevance, along with depth and complexity that hooks students.  So, apply the thinking process to each new fact pattern.  Even in times of limited flexibility in curriculum, teachers and parents can always find time to digest a meaty problem.  Now you have the recipe.


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