Life Prep Should Include Problem-Based Learning, Failure & Leadership

John Buxton
The students of today are different.
They plan for the future at a young age. At Culver Academies, we see middle-school students initiating the admissions process to prepare for a desired career path. In fact, students typically recognize the opportunity and then convince their parents of the course of action.  
This is a proactive, practical generation that isn’t engaged with traditional teaching methods. But there are three things educators and parents can do to prepare students academically and personally for their future:    
Make learning an active experience. If you ask students what they like most about school, they’ll tell you about a really great science class, an arts project, or their extracurriculars, like creating videos. That is because these are examples of students’ making their own meaning; what engages them has to feel real, relevant.
This is why traditional, instructional methods of teaching aren’t as effective today. You can simply tell students that something works—because while that may be interesting, they will learn better when given the opportunity to interact with and experience the activity.
Teaching by using a problem-based approach is much more effective. Problem-based assignments involve doing and thinking. Instead of just understanding a concept, students are forced to figure out what the experience means to them and what it means in different contexts. When given problems to solve, students exercise critical thinking and creativity. They gain confidence.
As educators and parents, we are in an ideal position to structure students’ experiences so that they learn how to apply these concepts to their lives. To make them think. What questions can we ask to inspire a quest for knowledge? What kind of projects and/or papers will provide a learning journey? Ask challenging questions and give kids room to find answers and come to their own conclusions. This process is an example of experiential learning, and it captures interest, taps into passion, and gives students more control of their education.
Put them in charge. Inherently, students want to be more grown up. Left to their own devices, this desire could manifest in a negative or positive way. But educators and parents can provide positive adult experiences by giving students leadership responsibility in an area of interest. This, too, taps into their passion, but it also stretches interpersonal skills, diplomacy, the ability to organize, manage time and projects, and practice ethics. By leading in an area of interest, they will inevitably develop individual competencies.    


Let them lead the exercise and have them create opportunities for teamwork. When students are forced to work together to solve a problem or complete a project, something magical happens. They challenge, motivate, and validate each other. They teach each other. There’s no hiding or slacking off in this kind of learning environment, because every student’s participation is important to the outcome. Students find themselves, and their voice, in the process of group learning.
Give them the opportunity to them manage younger students/peers. Being in charge is fun when everyone has a job to do, and each will do what is expected and required to do the work. But how will students handle situations when the work doesn’t get done, the train is derailed and they are accountable? Growth happens in these moments. Then it is up to the leader to determine the right process for reaching a solution to the problem. This means taking responsibility for oneself and others; and this is an important aspect of leadership development.
Let them fail. Failure isn’t scary or shameful when it is expected, even encouraged. If a student knows that they may fail a number of times before they can do something correctly or successfully, they see that failure is part of a learning process. It may take 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. But failure and recovery–assessing what went wrong and developing plan B –is ultimately a growth experience.
Possibly an example would help illustrate how we at Culver create these educational opportunities. Take the 10th grade Chemistry class that is learning chemistry by taking on the project of determining which alternative fuels are the most efficient and marketable given the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative: hydrogen, bio-diesel, and ethanol. We divide the class into teams of “professional scientists” whose task it is to present these options to members of the House of Representatives Energy Committee (visiting faculty and administrators or other Science teachers). This activity includes an authentic problem, an authentic audience, and real science. It teaches critical thinking, communication skills, and creativity. The exercise also challenges the students to consider economic and political issues, in addition to teaching them about Chemistry.
Helping students forge their path forward is about both developing knowledge and about preparing their whole person. When we teach students by providing experiences, help them understand how they learn, provide leadership opportunities, and encourage failure and recovery; we are prepping them not just for college or a career… we are prepping them for life.
About “GenDIY”
eduInnovation and Getting Smart have partnered with The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation to produce a thought leadership campaign called Generation Do-It-Yourself (GenDIY)– how young people are hacking a pathway to a career they love – on The Huffington Post This campaign about reimagining secondary and postsecondary education and career skills will explore the new generation building a global economy and experiences that are impact driven and entrepreneurial. For more on GenDIY:

John N. Buxton serves as Culver Academies Head of Schools. Follow Culver Academies on Twitter, @CulverAcademies.

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