Category Archives: PBL

Day Zero: Hamlet meets Cape Town?

I stumbled upon this video today and wondered how reading William Shakespeare’s Hamlet might connect to a very real calamity in Cape Town, South Africa, where, after a three-year drought, water levels are almost at zero.

Day Zero: how Cape Town stopped the taps running dry

I had a chance to work with some wonderful teachers a few days and I wondered out loud whether students need the teacher to play the role of the ‘bridger’: Image result for hamletthat is to say, the teacher needs to show students how any lesson bridges or connects to ‘real life’  — or anything for that matter.

So, with that in mind, I wondered how might we connect Hamlet to the water emergency in Cape Town?

(The reason, for this exercise, I have chosen Hamlet is that it is used widely, usually in senior grade levels, and I wanted to explore how a ‘core’ text such as Hamlet might be used to connect to other issues and topics.)

  • Problem-solving:
    • What makes for effective problem solving? What are the criteria to effective problem solving?
    • What do effective problem solvers do when faced with a very difficult problem?

Apollo 13: Work the Problem

    • How does a person have to think, behave, interact with others, speak in order to effectively solve a problem?
    • Is Hamlet an effective problem addresser / solver? Why or why not?
    • How did the people and the government of Cape Town, South Africa handle their problem? According to our criteria, did they effectively address their problem?
    • Compare the crisis of Cape Town to Hamlet.
    • Is it possible to place both of these crises on the same scale of urgency? That is to say, is Hamlet’s personal problem as urgent or critical as Cape Town’s water problem? If we use a form of meter to ‘measure’ the intensity of a crisis, where would Hamlet’s problem fall on that meter according to a) him? b) his friends and family? c) his country? Why do you say that?


  • What if I started off my entire unit with that essential question: What makes for effective problem solving? Or the other question: What do effective problem solvers do when faced with a major, seemingly unsolvable crisis-level problem? And then what if we used Hamlet as case-study or a base-line or a comparison in amongst other texts, such as Apollo 13 or The Martian or the Cape Town water crisis?
  • And then what if we tap into the work of Garfield Gini-Newman and The Critical Thinking Consortium who promote ‘criterial thinking’, which is making a sound decision based on criteria and evidence?
  • And once we have that thinking framework, what if students were invited to engage in free reading and they were to look for other ‘case studies’ of how people solve problems?
  • And what if I asked these students to write about how they have solved problems in their own lives?
  • Last question: Is Hamlet the best ‘vehicle’ for exploring this topic?



  • The Cape Town water crisis video explores the impact the Day Zero water initiative had on citizens in the city, particularly those below or at the poverty line, who tend to be people of colour. An area to explore could be the potential Image result for lessons pngimpact a solution might have upon another person, a group, society in general. For example, how do Hamlet’s choices impact others? Is this solution still effective then?
  • What wisdom might we take — both positive and negative — from Hamlet’s story and the Cape Town initiative that we could use as lessons for our own lives both now and in the future?



Opinion: Learning faster without teachers

Edutopia: Reinventing a Public High School with Problem-Based Learning

Really interesting video. I really like the summit based on a real-life issue.  I wish one of the teachers would post the mechanics of setting up and implementing what appears to be a very engaging activity for a wide swath of students. Plus, I would want to think through how this activity was evaluated for individual marks and not for catch-all group marks.

From Discipline Problems to Problem-Based Teaching and Learning. « Illinois 21

A very interesting blog about PBL.

Illinois 21: PBL in the 21st Century School

Stumbled upon this resource page using my Google Blog Reader. Looks amazing. I look forward to digging into it, with such topics as:

What is Project-Based Learning in 21st Century Schools?

What is unique about Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century? 

Here is the original and I included it here in my PBL resources.

Blog Post: Ask a TAS teacher about PBL

I am using Google Reader to explore the topic of Problem Based Learning, and when I checked in with my Reader page recently, I discovered this interesting blog post and the author’s insights on PBL — with some of them being a cold splash of water on my uninformed explorations into PBL.

For example:

“I want to get into PBL”. Something I hear and see a lot of recently. I’ve been an advocate of PBL for a while, so in lieu of people understanding what PBL is, I take it as a sign they want to do something new (to them) in their classroom.

Romance: They often head off to Buck Institute or start consuming Edutopia content. For the more wealthy, they hire in US consultancies like New Tech Foundation who offer seemingly “off the shelf programs “and “pay-for-databases of projects”.

In trying to understand PBL, I have headed off to the Buck Institute and have started consuming Edutopia content. In my defense, being uninformed, I am not  sure where else to go but to these sites so that I can become to be informed.

The author goes to say:

Myth: I’ve said a few times publicly that PBL often appears a cure for something we imagine to be missing in the classroom (the curse of people talking about self-direction and authentic engagement). It assumes the patient is sick and that the symptoms are in some way related to the underlying condition that has been popularised by Web2.0 authors and speakers.

Reality: PBL requires 2 things – both of them are well researched and important. Firstly, the process or cycle of learning is well a planned, rhobust (sic) and instructionally (sic) designed to produce emergent, communicative knowledge. This does not mean students understand how that knowledge might be applied to new situations – wisdom takes a while and cannot be planned to happen week 8, lesson 3.

These are excellent insights but, just as John Hattie propounds that teaching needs to be visible for students, teaching strategies must also be visible so teachers can learn new strategies. As I said, this blog post has some powerful insights from an apparently expert or advanced user of PBL, but where do I go to know what s/he knows? What if I don’t have access to a mentor, as is suggested? Is there nowhere I can learn this for myself?  Because, as Rick Stiggins suggests, a learner can hit any target that is visible from a long way off and that stands still. I have to hold out hope that I can learn the how-to’s of PBL by ‘heading off to the Buck Institute’ or by ‘consuming Edutopia content’ — at least as a starting point.

Here is the original post and I have included this awesome article here in my resources.

Will Richardson: Preparing Students to Learn Without Us

Wow. I read this article when I received the magazine in February and remember it being powerful. But re-reading it now, it kind of scares me.

In a way, the article lays out a challenge to me as a teacher, and in that challenge are calls for, essentially, seismic shifts of the tectonic plates of traditional
education.  ‘Time and place’ learning, personalized learning, even differentiation with a small ‘d’ are not quite adequate enough for reaching and empowering today’s learners who live in a world of personal choice 24/7, who need to be shown how to learn on their own. (Indeed, I have students who already have ‘outgrown’ this version of the school system, and online learning, such as The Khan Academy, facilitates this ‘spreading of the wings’).

Richardson discusses re-formatting the very nature of the classroom experience, the curriculum, and the role of the teacher — and this is scary and exhilarating to think about.  Sacred, time-honoured texts and lessons and activities would be supplanted by learning objectives that serve as the north star to follow, and with this objectives in place, the students choose the content, the product and even the pace. That’s a pretty massive shift in the structure of learning.

Furthermore, the mantra of “We need to prepare them for university” casts a pretty long shadow over — and even extinguishes — initiatives, such as ‘personal learning’, before they even gets a chance to be discussed, let alone be introduced in an experimental fashion.

I do, however, have a few questions:

  1. One element to ‘personal learning’ is that it relies upon or is facilitated by web 2.0. What if computer access is limited in the home and in the school?
  2. What if students are uncomfortable with this form of learning?
  3. What if only one teacher engages in this type of learning and it goes contrary to what other teachers in a department or school are teaching?
  4. What are the mechanics of managing 20 to 30 students in a classroom setting?
  5. What are the mechanics of managing ‘assessing in the moment’?

Nonetheless, I am definitely intrigued by the ideas Richardson puts forward here, and perhaps part of the scariness of this article is that asks me to ask myself, “What is my role as a teacher? The repository of all knowledge on a topic? The gatekeeper? A people-manager? A facilitator? A ‘guide on the side’?”

February 2012 | Volume 69 | Number 5
For Each to Excel Pages 22-26

Preparing Students to Learn Without Us

Will Richardson

By pairing personalized learning and technology, a teacher can help students learn what they need to learn through the topics that interest them most.

Here’s what I wonder: Can my 12-year-old son Tucker, a kid who lives for anything having to do with basketball, learn just about every math concept he needs to be successful in life in the context of playing the game he loves?

I posed that question on my blog a few months ago, and the post elicited more than 60 responses from readers who connected basketball to the study of bivariate data, complex equations, statistical analysis, slope, variables, predicting outcomes, probability, geometric shapes, mean, median, mode, averages, arc, force, angles, percentages, fractions, linear inequalities, volume, speed, mass, acceleration, and dozens of other concepts that are no doubt part of Tucker’s K–12 math curriculum (Richardson, 2010). And when I showed him some of the great ideas that teachers had left on my blog, he lit up. “Really?” he asked. “I could do that?”

Yes, I think he could. That’s not to say that he wouldn’t need…





PLUS: An article Richardson references that he himself wrote in 2009:

Personalized Online Learning