Here’s What Happens when You Let Students Problem Solve

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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By: Allison Zmuda

Jessica Craig and Allison Zmuda
3rd grade teacher Jessica Craig and Allison Zmuda.

Before I walked into Jessica’s 3rd grade classroom, there were four girls that opened the door upon my arrival. They all had a combination of confidence, excitement, and nervousness about them as they wanted to make sure they showed me everything that was happening. And there was a lot to show me.

My entire 45-minute tour in that classroom was magical! Here are four highlights:

1. The power of engaged students.

Imagine a class where every student was focused on the task at hand. Some were working in pairs. Some were working on their own. But everyone was engaged.

There was a table for small group instruction that Jessica facilitated on using rubber bands and peg boards to create new geometric shapes. In another space, students were on laptops working on Front Row to improve basic math skills. Another table was a maker space where students were able to apply geometric construction skills to create models using Kinex blocks, solar panels, and Legos. There also was a computer station set up for students to make screencasts of a math topic to demonstrate conceptual understanding to the teacher and help other students that may be struggling.

While the students were happy to explain what they were doing when I asked, they also clearly wanted to get back to what they were doing.

2. The power of good design.

Every station that the students cycled through had purpose. This goes back to the power of a teacher who can connect the what (we are learning), how (we are approaching it), and why (it is significant).

This is a standards-based classroom with no standards-based language on the walls. It is infused in the student SMART goals, the now seamless expectations at each station, and the guided conversations and questions the teacher uses based on her observations of students.

3. The power of a teacher.

Personalized math goals
The students weren’t engaged in their math time, so Jessica took it to the class to figure out a solution.

Jessica believes in her students. Well, that’s not quite the secret sauce yet as many teachers believe in their students. But Jessica believes in their ability to think through problems, challenges and questions that affect their communities — classroom, local, and world.

As a classroom community, they worked hard to re-imagine their math block as the students and teacher identified that there was a lack of engagement and focus in the whole class mini-lessons. As a school community, they began to develop ideas around creating a wildlife habitat and began seeking out local resources to make that happen. As a global community, they brainstormed problems that were caused by more people building new houses.

Jessica commented to me that she used to agonize for hours in the evening on how to approach a new assignment or how to improve an instructional practice that clearly wasn’t working. Now she includes students as part of the design process.

They articulate the problems through research, examination, and reflection. They also identify goals – what they hope to achieve. That is as true for both the problems listed above as well as identifying SMART goals to shape their individual performance.

4. The power of support.

Jessica participated in a district wide Deeper Dive program sponsored by Douglas County Public Schools in Colorado to re-imagine how to create student voice and choice in her classroom.

Her building principal is also fully invested in the idea and works with teachers to imagine what’s possible — redesign of spaces for learning and redesign of what learning can look like in those spaces.

Her parents are informed and engaged not only by what they see their children doing but also seeing illustrative examples and explanation of personalized learning in her room.

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