Episode 36 Using problems and questions to enhance student learning

In this episode Dan discusses how the use of problems replicates real world learning and how questions drive inquiry.

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  • Problems are real world. It is how we approach our own learning.
    • How often do you begin your learning because you have run into a problem. 
    • The current biggest problem for educators is the sudden switch the remote learning due to covid -19
    • If you’re still struggling with this you can listen to episodes 32 to 34 for my special 3 part interview with Kelly Pfeiffer and if you are using G-Suite for remote learning I have a webinar this Monday the 20th that you can register for here. There will be a link in the show notes at teacherspd.net/36 I have also made my 12.5 hour NESA accredited course “Introduction to G-Suite for Education” free for anyone who is new to using G-Suite. Just go to TeachersPD.net
    • But, coming back… presenting learning as a problem replicates what learning is like for us, provides some authenticity to the learning and develops lifelong learning skills.
  • Problems develop entrepreneurial skills
    • I personally own 2 businesses and can testify that owning a business and running a business is all about finding solutions to problems. These problems might be those of my clients that I hope to solve, or to create a product to solve. But they are also problems such as: no-one is coming to my site, they leave after only looking at one page. Or maybe people are having issues logging in, or how do I get my brand in front of my ideal clients…. These are all real problems I have had.
    • Solving problems is how the next big company will be made. Facebook connects people around the world, Google organises the world’s information to make it accessible, and both were born out of a problem that the founders saw and then sought to solve even when others told them it was impossible.
  • So, when you are creating learning in your classroom or at the moment, online. Try and present the learning as a problem to be solved. If you can use a real world problem that students could work on for your subject. eg
    • Obesity is increasing
    • Pandemics
    • People are losing jobs
    • Or maybe you have a local problem they can solve, like how to increase the diversity of flora and fauna at your school
  • Additionally, when you present problems consider things such as:
    • Student choice, which will increase the authenticity and connection to their life and then increase learning and engagement
    • Consider if Students can manage the challenge (don’t restrict them completely, but don’t be unrealistic either)
    • And finally, make sure that the problem you pose relates to your course content
  • When it comes to using questions you are really looking to drive inquiry. Next week I’m going to be talking about all inquiry, so today I really just want to say that questions for inquiry must be non-googlable! 
    • That is, the answer should not be straight forward.
    • It should force the students to consider multiple perspectives and multiple sources of information in order to answer it in the manner in which they do.
  • These types of questions tend to relate very closing to presenting problems. For example, you might pose a problem through a question such as:
    • How do we improve our health during isolation?
    • Why do we each respond differently to the same text?
    • How do we know what happened in the past?
  • You will notice with these examples that they all start with how or why and are personable. In order to craft a good question for students learning
    • They should start with How or why rather than what, when or who. This helps to make them more open ended, open to interpretation and allow greater depth of understanding.
    • By making it personable, using “we” “you” or “our” it helps to promote authenticity as the students should see themselves as helping to create the action to answer the question. This can really boost engagement, provide real connections for the students, which helps them to grow in their knowledge and understanding so that it is then easier to apply higher-order thinking skills to the content.
    • A good question will relate to your course outcomes. And depending on how your syllabus is written, by starting with your syllabus you may actually find some ready made questions that you could adapt for your specific context and the content you want to cover.
    • Finally, a good question tends to draw on those central elements to your course or subject area. They connect content to life and show that learning has application beyond the classroom. So you cannot just ask “how does Shakespeare use synonyms to convey meaning?” this is too narrow. Instead you could ask how might we convey depth of meaning in our own texts? And use a study of Shakespeare and perhaps other authors as the content from which the students draw as they create a text that communicates something in depth using similar methods.

The final thing to consider when using problems or questions as a focus for the learning is the skills the students possess as well as the skills they will need to solve the problem or answer the question. If they need to develop these further than allow time for this in your unit. For example, if I am wanting my students to create a website as part of their solution they may not have the skills or know how to make this happen. As such, I will need to embed some teaching for the students where they can learn how to create a website.

OK, so this week, find a problem or a question that links with life and content. Present your lesson based on this question and see how it goes. Or maybe, identify a problem that the content you want to teach might help solve and then pose the problem. Start small, but if you are doing unit planning this week, you may want to consider looking for a question or problem that you could use throughout the unit as the central focus that you keep coming back to.

Well, that is it for this week. Thanks so much for taking some time out to listen to this episode. If you are enjoying the podcast, please take a moment to leave a review, it will help others find the podcast and learn as well. If you specifically liked this episode, feel free to share it on social media with the hashtag #EffectiveTeaching

And finally, if you haven’t already registered for my free NESA accredited webinar series these holidays, please head over to teacherspd.net/36 you will find a link there to the registration page. There are 2 more free webinars this week and I would love to see you there. I will be talking about using G-Suite remotely on Monday and answering your specific questions on Wednesday. So head on over and get some free PD. 

Chat to you next week.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below


  1. Merli Pyus-Wotherspoon

    I cant believe that took all this time for me introduced to your webinars and podcast. I just love them! I have been using Google Classroom the last two years but never with the same intensity than now and there is always so much to learn. I wonder if doing some of the other Google PD’s would be enough or I should also complete your introduction to G-Suite Education ?
    I kindly thankyou for your great work. Keep this up, Dan!

  2. Maninder Kaur

    Loved your ideas of non-Google able question along with inquisitive questions . I loved your podcast and will try my best to listen to every podcast that you will post.
    Thanks again!
    Maninder Kaur

  3. Phillip Mitchell

    Hi Dan,
    Well done with this Podcast. I thoroughly agree with your perspective on the value of personalised open-ended questions related to relative problems for students, and the community today. I believe that when teachers develop enough patience to allow the student the time to ponder, struggle with and discuss relative problems we begin to move away from primary Art. That is where I was taught the tree trunks are brown and leaves are green. Development of imagination, creative thinking, and discussion enables the trees to be multiple colours.

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