Five steps to plan a problem based lesson

Far from a simple undertaking, incorporating more inquiry in your class is a challenging process. You and your students may have to unlearn some of the tendencies you’ve built up over the years. So I hope you don’t take this “five steps” post as a flippant, “it’s so easy” post. The opposite is true: problem based learning can require more effort than your typical lesson planning. I’ve broken down my approach here.

Step 1: Find the problem. Modify if necessary.

Easy start, huh? Just go through every problem set in every resource on the World Wide Web and find a problem. Should take no more than two to three hundred hours. Or you could follow my approach. 

I start with the standard, then I go searching for problems. That search begins with my own Common Core Curriculum Maps, where I find my trustiest repositories of problems from bloggers and organizations that have made their resources freely available. I’m so grateful for these caches of math tasks. 

Another place I go searching is the problem set in the associated section in the textbook (a gasped hush falls over the audience). The application section in typical textbook problems sets are actually decent places to find the kernel of quality problems. Textbook problems typically take a bit of adaptation, but you can rest assured they’re at least aligned with the intended standard.

From Necessary Conditions: Teaching Secondary Math with Academic Safety, Quality Tasks, and Effective Facilitation

Step 2: Plan the outcomes and assessment

How are you going to assess students? And, if the problems are group tasks, how are you going to ensure that individual students know the material and had a chance to contribute. I have to go-tos: 

For the groupwork, I use a rubric; one that assesses both the collaboration of the students and the content put on paper (or poster paper).

For students’ individual content knowledge, I give a few practice problems. Depending on how much time I expect after we share out our problem solutions, I may find three or four. Or, better yet, use David’s “Choose Your Own Problems” method. 

Step 3: Plan the launch

How are you going to launch the problem? I always start with some sort of problem decoding routine. I want to make sure that every student understands the problem and have a few immediate next steps the moment we turn to groupwork.

I also want to consider students who might need a few extra moments to process the problem. Sure, I could be talking about students with IEPs, but even students without designated modifications may need extra time to process. I need extra time to process, often in writing, before I’m ready to engage. Consider how you’ll structure your problem launch so all students can engage. 

The strategy I used most often was to give students the problem the day before. Their “homework” was to read through the problem and identify any of the following: unknown vocabulary, important information, ideas for solving, drawing the scenario, etc. This way the day of the problem based lesson was not the first time students see the problem. They can come prepared with ideas and questions. 

Step 4: Prepare the scaffolding

Many problem based lessons require some sort of scaffold during or after the problem. Sometimes the scaffold may be a whole class lecture, other times it might be a small workshop. It’s also possible your scaffolding might be in the form of “hint cards.” These would be little hints to get kids unstuck as they progress through a problem. These hints could be in the form of questions: 

From Necessary Conditions: Teaching Secondary Math with Academic Safety, Quality Tasks, and Effective Facilitation

Step 5: Identify students and skills so as to promote academic status

One of the (if not the) benefits of problem based learning is that complex tasks afford the opportunity to demonstrate ingenuity, creativity, and camaraderie in a way that a rote, teacher-centric lesson cannot. And while you’ll certainly find opportunities in the moment, it helps to plan ahead as well: what are the types of mathematical thinking may come up during the problem? Who are the specific students in your class that you’d like to offer a confidence boost to?

Most lessons plans are very task and agenda driven. I’d encourage you to bucket some space on your lesson plan template for assigning academic status. Think about students you haven’t connected with in a while. Examine your biases. I’ve attempted to do so on the lesson plan template from Necessary Conditions. You can use this template or not, but I do suggest having a place to capture this planning.

And “voila!

There’s certainly so much more than goes into planning a problem based lesson, but hopefully this will give you an insight into my planning process. For some of those additional things, check out my selected blog posts and problem based learning pathway

2 comments

  1. Geoff! Wanted to touch base and let you know that I have been using lots of MVP/Open Up Resources in Algebra. LOVE THE CURRICULUM!

    Anne Webb Owensboro Innovation Academy

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