In this post I begin to describe “The California Choice Project,” a Problem-Based Learning unit my students completed in the fall as part of our social studies curriculum. Below you will find the problem statement I introduced to the kids on the first day of the unit. In this statement my goals were to 1) create an interesting context that would engage my students, 2) establish a clear final project that would drive everyone’s efforts throughout the unit and allow for meaningful student choice, and 3) include essential content about our topic, the four regions of California.
“You are the founder and president of a new technology startup company in North Dakota. Ten people work for your company, and many of them have young children. To grow your business, you have decided to move your company to California and take your employees and their families with you. You need to decide which of California’s four regions to choose for your new headquarters. On Thursday, October 8th, your company will have its most important meeting ever. At that meeting, you will make a presentation to your employees that describes the pros and cons of living and working in each region. This presentation must include high quality information about each region and professional-looking visual aids. Your employees have told you that they want to know about each region’s climate, geography, resources, and recreational activities. At the end of your presentation, you will announce which region you have chosen and why you chose that region.”
At this stage of a new project, it’s natural for teachers to want to “talk through” the problem statement with the kids and explain everything to them. With Problem-Based Learning, though, the emphasis is on student initiative, with the children doing more and the teachers doing less. So, rather than explain the statement to the kids, I provided an opportunity for them to generate their own understanding of it.
Specifically, they responded to two prompts that were printed under the problem statement in two columns. On the left side, it said: “What I Know About the Project,” and on the right, it said: “What I Need to Learn Before I Can Start.” I gave everyone about ten minutes to reread and highlight the problem statement and then write bullet points in each column. Next, each child teamed up with a partner, and each pair shared their responses and added more ideas. Having the kids work individually at the outset gave everyone a chance to invest time and thought to make sense of what they were being asked to do. Following this up with partner work enabled kids to fill in any gaps that might exist in their understanding. Finally, we came together as a class to establish the most important things that we already knew about the project and determine what we, as a class, needed to learn in order to meet the objectives of the project.
Next time, I will share how the children formed groups, created action plans to guide their learning, and worked collaboratively during the rest of the unit.