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Jeff Heyck-Williams on "Picking the Perfect Problem"

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    Sarah Norris

Two Rivers Public Charter School is an EL Education Credentialed Mentor School in Washington, D.C. 

A cornerstone of the EL Education model is that “students do real work”--meaning they do history as historians do it, or use the tools that artists use, or apply newfound knowledge to solving a real problem in their school or community. 

Two Rivers Public Charter School is known for doing the last one especially well. Jeff Hyck-Williams, their Director of Curriculum and Instruction, outlines how they think about this in a recent post for Education Week’s “Next Gen Learning in Action” blog.

Think about the Curriculum, Think about Your Students, Think about Your Context

“We always start with the curriculum. When we talk about curriculum, we mean all of the knowledge, skills, and mindsets that we want students to learn from a given project. This includes the science and social studies content of the particular topic and any relevant literacy, math, and technical skills such as video editing. However, that isn’t all. We find it useful to articulate the critical thinking and problem-solving skills as well as collaboration and communication skills that we want students to develop through the course of the expedition.”

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“After articulating the curricular outcomes in an expedition, we shift our focus to the students. We want problems that will drive students’ curiosity, motivate them, and represent a reasonable stretch so that they accomplish more than they thought possible through the project. We specifically consider students’ current content knowledge and understandings. Their current competencies with both subject matter and skills form the foundation on which the project and learning will be built.

However, we don’t solely think about students in academic terms. We also want to be aware of student interests. The perfect problem in project-based learning will tap into the issues and questions that matter to the students.”

“Which brings us to the last consideration in designing the perfect problem: the context. Once we have considered the curricular outcomes that we are aiming for and the place where students are starting from, we look for authentic opportunities to apply the targeted content.

We have a couple of criteria in mind when we explore possible contexts. First, we look for organizations in our community where people are utilizing the content and also are interested in developing a partnership with a school. We are fortunate that being situated in Washington, D.C., affords us lots of community partners, but there are people in every community waiting to be connected to school projects. Second, we want the projects to meet a real need. We work with our community partners to determine what challenges they are facing so that our students will contribute to a solution.”

Read more--including extensive details on how all these “think-abouts” fed into an eighth-grade expedition on gene editing--here