Context isn’t everything, but it’s often a good thing. Or at least, it’s a thing, sometimes only a starting point. While contextualized scenarios aren’t necessarily the key that unlocks engagement they may allow students to model, activate students’ interests, activate your own interest, or simply serve as a starting point from which to develop a non-routine problem or project.

But where to start?

I’ve tried the stare-at-the-standard-until-inspiration-hits-you-like-a-bolt-of-lightning technique, but it’s not terribly effective. Not often, anyway.

I find there’s often freedom in constraints. A while back, Chris Jackson from College, Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA) had us design a performance assessment task based on some psuedo-random nouns and verbs (“fox”, “politics”, “measure”, “travel”, and the like). As difficult as it is to think of a contextualized problem in absentia of any guidance, as soon as the “shackles” of these nouns and verbs were placed on us, our group got straight to work. In a 15 minute time frame, we developed the idea of a performance assessment task in which the student is to analyze data on potentially contaminated milk (or something) and write a letter to a politician advising him/her of a possible political advertisement. Did we fully develop the task? No, we were at a conference and had, like, 15 minutes. Did we design the data? Nope. But those quick constraints allowed us the freedom to think deeply about content.

That felt like an interesting way to begin to design a task: by placing artificial constraints.

I had the pleasure of spending a day at a middle school where the teachers were dipping their toes into the wide waters of PBL. One of the thing I love about my current job is that it forcibly removes me from math-world relatively often. We were brainstorming PBL ideas as an entire staff. We discussed environmental impacts of war (all subjects), skeletal remains identification (systems of equations, biology, social studies), health fairs (all subjects) and more. It’s fun being with teachers that are excited about finding connections across content area, so I was pretty jazzed.

Upon looking at all the brainstorm ideas, I began to think about a schema in which we can place these ideas, potentially to aid future brainstorm sessions. Here’s what I came up with.


What do you think? Consider a content standard (or a cluster of standards) and try to develop a context allowing you to place it in one or several of the grids. Shoot, make it a game: try to get a tic-tac-toe, or BINGO. Maybe even consider your entire curriculum: are you spending an overabundance of time in one particular row, column or grid space? I’d prefer to have this thing blacked out, but that may just be personal preference.

But back to brainstorming, this seems like a potentially useful process check, ensuring you cover all your bases before you throw up your hands and declare a standard entirely devoid of contextualized meaning.

So I may play around with this framework a little bit. It’s probably not terribly revolutionary: all it does is place things on a grid according to temporal and geographic location. Feel free to give it a test run along with me.

2 thoughts on “Designing Problems: Linking a standard to a context

  1. “What do you think? Consider a content standard (or a cluster of standards) and try to develop a context allowing you to place it in one or several of the grids.”
    Firstly I don’t think that you will find context for some of the stuff, for example irrational numbers!
    Secondly it may prove too constricting to go this way. Better to explore real situations, as you described earlier in the post, dig out the useful, interesting and quantitative stuff, create many problems, tasks etc, and then see which standards are represented. There is always a danger of the cart dragging the horse.

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