3 Activities To Get Started With Problem-Based Learning (Plus, Free PD!)

Because our students can change the world.

problem based learning activities

The challenge is cool, the funding is generous—and the first round of the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest is easy-peasy. If you teach public school grades 6–12 and are interested in community involvement, check it out.

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One of the biggest trends in education right now is problem-based learning, and for a good reason. PBL is a powerful way to help kids build the skills and confidence they need to see themselves as changemakers. There are so many opportunities for us to introduce PBL in our classes (even virtually!). If you’ve never tried PBL before, but you’re ready to start, here are three activities to get started.

Brainstorm a problem Padlet

To get started with PBL, challenge students to brainstorm a problem that they’d like to solve. We love using Padlet so students can easily see each other’s ideas (plus you can post the board in your LMS and add to it as you work). Post-It notes work great too!

As you go through students’ ideas, you’ll likely see big, broad, world-wide problems like poverty, hunger, school violence, and climate change. For PBL to work, we need to help our students narrow their focus, so their problem meets three criteria: it’s hyper-localized, relevant, and can have multiple solutions. Introduce the criteria, and then use one of your student’s examples to dig deeper into the problem. Here are some questions you might ask:

  • Why is this a problem?
  • Why should kids care?
  • How does the problem affect our community (school, neighborhood, city/town)?
  • Is this problem affecting us in our day-to-day lives? How?
  • What are some ideas for how we might solve this problem?

Sharing an example can help students see how they can take a big problem and use the three criteria to narrow their focus. Here’s an example from MindSpark Learning’s PD on Problem-Based Learning. Ask students to go back into the Padlet and revise their problem, so it meets all three criteria.

PBL example

Conduct a problem statements gallery walk

Now that students are beginning to understand how to identify a problem that meets all three of PBL’s criteria give them a chance to develop that understanding with a gallery walk. Before the gallery walk, students will submit a slide that has these three elements:

  • Context: Why is this a problem? Why should kids care?
  • Problem: What question(s) are they trying to solve?
  • Task: What are they producing? How will they show they have met standards?

Ask students to go through the slide deck and pick two problems to evaluate. Does the problem meet all three criteria (it’s hyper-localized, relevant, and can have multiple solutions)?

Students can use the comments feature to share their findings and take notes. Then, you can chat as a class about what you noticed. Using the feedback, students can revise their problem statements.

Introduce needs statement sentence frames

The next step in PBL is to write a needs statement. Students will likely need some support to understand what a needs statement is and how to write it. We love this sentence frame from MindSpark Learning, and giving students an example also helps them get started.
needs statement sentence frame

Needs Statement Example

What’s next? Enter The Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest

PBL is most meaningful when students work together to design a solution to their problem. This is where they see the impact of their work. It’s also motivating and exciting when they have a bigger goal to work towards, like entering a contest. The Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest  is fully virtually this year, and you and your students have a chance to win your share of $2 million dollars in classroom technology.

Want to learn more? Take a free PBL workshop

Once you register on the website, you have access to six free hours of PD. Samsung partnered with MindSpark Learning, so you have everything that you need to co-create a strong problem statement with your students. This isn’t your typical “sit and get” webinar where a facilitator talks at you. It’s highly interactive, and you will use tools like Padlet, Jamboard, Zoom chat, and breakout rooms to learn PBL basics. So if you want to enter the contest, but you feel like you need some support, check out the PD. There’s also a virtual session on design thinking so you and your students can start dreaming up a solution.

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3 Activities To Get Started With Problem-Based Learning (Plus, Free PD!)

Posted by Julie Mason

Julie Mason is a Senior Editor at WeAreTeachers. She taught middle and high school English, and is a blended and personalized learning instructional coach. She loves reading a book in one sitting, good coffee, and spending time with her husband and sons.

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