The Problem-Solving Humanities Classroom?

Photo by Amber Elliot

Photo by Amber Elliot

Math is an abstract subject which, to the novice especially, can easily become divorced from its real-world applications, devolving into a mechanical, step-by-step following of procedures. That’s one reason the problem-solving approach as outlined by the Lesson Study Alliance is so attractive. The concept is simple: present students with a “real world” problem they can relate to (one example, from a Japanese school, involved calculating the crowdedness of rabbit cages of various sizes and shapes), ask them to come up with ways to solve it, solicit ideas, compare and discuss the ideas. Students then write down what they learned. It is beautiful in its simplicity. It is student-centered. It is hands-on. It is engaging. It encourages thinking for oneself. It is pretty near everything a teacher might want, but can it work in a humanities classroom?

Of course to implement this approach effectively a teacher really has to know her students. She has to work out the lesson in a meticulous way so that what starts as a natural and spontaneous flow can become a subtly orchestrated, directed lesson, and importantly for this discussion one with a preconceived point. The teacher should start out with a key concept that she’d like the kids to discover. She should anticipate some of the possible ideas, and she should be able to unobtrusively guide the students toward their own (seemingly natural) discovery of the key concept.

problem solving classroom

– McDougal, “Teaching Mathematics through Problem Solving”


…maybe new humanities too?

But, can this approach be applied to other subject areas in which problems have more open-ended solutions, or no clear solution at all? Is it possible to lead students to discoveries of important concepts in history or literature in the same way without spoon-feeding them one, prescribed interpretation? Can the problem-solving approach be used effectively to teach students to think independently? At first glance, the answer appears to be “no.” The approach seems to depend somewhat on there being a clear, undisputed answer. In the case of the rabbit cages, there were some cages more crowded than others and only one that was least crowded, and there really was one best method for determining these things. It’s hard to imagine a history class starting with a problem like, “In retrospect, should the U.S.  have dropped atomic bombs on Japan?” and arriving at anything like a clear-cut answer by using any single “best” method.

The idea of the problem-solving classroom is so attractive though, that it’s certainly worth delving a little deeper to see if it can be applied to the humanities whilst avoiding the pitfall of simplistic spoon-feeding or inadvertent indoctrination. We have to start by deciding what kind of outcomes we desire from a successful humanities lesson. Among the old favorites in history classes we have, “Students will explain cause and effect relationships.”; “Students will draw logical conclusions,” or “make accurate predictions.” Can we now formulate problems that will lead students to methodically hone these skills? Of course we can! But if we want students to solve problems of a historical nature we need to set a bit of time aside to present the historical event. It may also prove helpful to provide some foreshadowing of things to come. Then, set up the problem:

“In March of 1770 a rowdy group of sailors and workers taunted and harassed British soldiers in Boston. The soldiers were there to support appointed officials who were trying to enforce the unpopular laws we learned about already. The soldiers fired into the crowd. Five civilians died, and 6 others were wounded. This was 5 years before the outbreak of the Revolution. How do you think this event was described in the American press, in the British? Write a brief description of the event from one of these perspectives. Explain what led to it and what effect it might’ve had.”

Solicit answers. Guide the discussion by affirming logical conclusions and accurate predictions. Ask students to explain how they arrived at their conclusions. In the end, ask them to jot down in their journals what they learned from describing the incident. Hopefully, they learned something about the power of perspective as they practiced explaining cause and effect relationships and drawing logical conclusions. Along with practicing these skills, they added one more piece to the complex puzzle of understanding the past. A problem solving approach needn’t be limited to problems with single, clear solutions nor confined to the math department. With a bit of planning and clear-headed thinking about goals and objectives, the humanities teacher can harness the engaging and effective power of the problem-solving classroom


Engaging Reluctant Learners

Photo by Shayla Beley

In secondary education, many of us engage with “The Problem,” as we call it, on a daily basis. “The Problem” happens to be one that many educators have most likely considered as they have worked to implement their curricular ideas on students who seem less than engaged; that is, how do we, as teachers, aid students in learning for the sake of learning? Is the act of teaching students to practice acts of intrinsic autonomy possible? Are they developmentally ready to delve into conceptual frameworks that presuppose a familiarity with multiple perspectives? It is a conundrum, to be sure, made even more complicated when considering students who have diagnosed neurological disorders that cause them to learn differently from the so-called average student.

It is important to note that this post is very much influenced by a number of philosophers: Gareth Mathews, Plato, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey, who are just a small handful of individuals that have posed ideas relevant to the blog, I also want to note that I believe that literature, if viewed as an exploration of ideas relevant to the human condition, can engage students who have often experienced failure in discipline-related classes in the act of intrinsic autonomy.

Perhaps the foremost researcher in childhood development is Jean Piaget, who has suggested within his work, as demonstrated through his theory of cognitive development, that kids cannot be engaged in higher-level thinking until adolescence, which occurs around age twelve. However, Gareth Matthews, in his book The Philosophy of Childhood, asserts that “it is imperative that we not let the results of Piaget’s genuinely remarkable experiments set our educational agenda or define for us the capacity for thought and reflection in young children.” Mathews disputes the notion that progress in development is accumulated; instead, he feels that children are more open to ideas at a younger age. With that said, the structure of early childhood learning within elementary school environments are arguably built on the foundation presupposed within Piaget’s stage-theory, which impedes and hinders an intrinsic exploration of ideas from an early age due to assumptions surrounding the cognitive nature of brain development.

In other words, assigned tasks in schools are often focused on rote memorization, comprehension, and following instructions throughout the duration of a childhood, which often leads to feelings of disillusionment and a distinct lack of interest in subjects.

Rarely do we encounter teenaged students who seek to explore issues about the nature and technique of critical thought as a method of establishing a reliable basis for claims, beliefs, and attitudes about the world. This, admittedly, is a subversive statement without substantial verification to support it and primarily based on circumstantial and anecdotal evidence of the author. Nevertheless, the majority of students are what I deem “reluctant learners,” which are students who are used to following directions that lead to a quantifiable outcome which is most often unrelated to the exploration of multiple interpretations that are useful in engaging the empathetic imagination.

This notion of the reluctant learner is made even more apparent through standardized assessment procedures such as tests or evaluations when the student has repeatedly failed in traditional schooling due to neurologically based disorders such as Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, Language-Based Disorders, and Processing Disorders.

Accordingly, it becomes necessary to re-frame traditional pedagogical methodology employed within classrooms and work to create more dynamic and nurturing environments that embrace creative problem solving skills in order to aid in motivating older students to embrace their own moral and intellectual development. This is not to underscore the philosophical failings of Outcome-based education or Paulo Freire’s Banking Model of education; rather it is to highlight the necessity of re-framing curricula to focus on problem-based learning through the employment of Socratic Questioning and John Dewey’s philosophy of Pragmatism.

Does Homework Help or Hurt?

Homework frustration2

Photo by Shayla Beley

Homework has been a controversial topic pretty much since education became free and compulsory throughout much of the United States at the turn of the last century. Homework has been labeled criminal by some and was even blamed for childhood mortality! The essential question is this: Is homework worth it?

The Costs

To answer that deceptively simple question we have to build a little balance sheet of costs and benefits; the costs of homework include time, in many cases a substantial time investment from students and often from parents as well. The amount of time spent on homework on average has increased in recent years. A recent survey of 1000 public high school teachers shows that on average each teacher assigns 3.5 hours of homework per week. That’s each teacher, and now remembers that typically students have about 5 academic classes. For those of you without an abacus that amounts to an average of 17.5 hours of homework per week. And now remember that’s on top of the 35 or so hours they are actually at school. Time spent at school plus time spent on homework equals 52.5 hours per week on average. Now factor in extra-curricular activities, sports, band, clubs, and so forth. Gee, why are kids so stressed out these days?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it’s probably no accident that homework as increased along with teacher accountability. There seems to be a kind of top-down pressure with students and their families occupying the unenviable bottom position. If teachers are going to be held accountable for educational outcomes as measured by prescribed, standardized tests, then they are going to hold students’ feet to the fire by heaping on the homework in the hopes that students and parents will pick up whatever slack is left from incomplete mastery in the classroom. Missing or late homework assignments are punished with draconian grade reductions. Oh, this assignment is 1 day late? We’ll just knock 20% off.  More than 3 days? We’ll just factor in a big fat zero. That should completely destroy any hope a grade you can feel good about! Thus, teaching is gradually but inexorably ceasing to be a collaborative project among students, teachers, and parents to cultivate young minds and has instead become an impersonal process based on fear of penalties. Teachers are penalized for underperforming students in a variety of ways that can include reductions in status, pay, and even job-loss, or in the case of a brilliant new Massachusetts proposal even loss of license to teach! Students are punished with low grades and all of the twisted, agonizing fall-out of school-related anxiety and disappointed, stressed-out parents.

So back to that balance sheet: precious time taken from family life or just being a kid, parental stress, student anxiety and aversion to school, all consequences of the shift away from collaborative learning and shifting of responsibility and penalties. Those are some steep costs, so I guess it must all be worthwhile, right? Many good parents would gladly accept at least some of these burdens if it really meant their kids were getting a top-notch education. But…

Is it worth it?

Not according to professional contrarian Alfie Kohn (and others). Kohn’s damning testimony is once again being paraded around the blogosphere; there’s little hard evidence that homework produces any measureable educational benefits, at least before secondary level schooling, and even at that level the benefits are modest at best. Meanwhile, those legendary pedagogues in Finland dole out little in the way of homework even as their students repeatedly top the world rankings. Egalitarians like French president Francoise Hollande who proposed banning homework in 2012 point out that student from wealthier families with a relative abundance of resources have a disproportionate advantage in completing homework assignments. One recent headline from Florida vividly illustrates his point: Miami-Dade libraries are overcrowded with students waiting in line to get on the internet to complete their math homework because they have no internet access at home. Clearly these kids have a much tougher time completing their homework than their wealthier counterparts with the luxury of broadband wifi at home. But the disparity goes much deeper than that. Wealthier kids tend to have more educated parents who have more free time. They also have more books at home and more educational experiences overall (think museum and library trips, international travel, etc.).

The bottom line from research conducted on the effectiveness of homework is that there is little conclusive evidence that homework improves educational outcomes. At the elementary level there is no correlation with greater success. At the secondary level there seems to be some modest correlation with better outcomes, but results varied by subject and type of homework assigned. So the question now is..

Is homework ever a Good Idea?

Generalizations are always dangerous, (and ironic statements are sometimes fun to write). It’s important to keep in mind circumstances and types of assignments. Not all assignments are equal. Anything that might qualify as “busy work”, like lengthy repetitive assignments, are certainly ill advised. The occasional assignment though that for reasons of practicality are better done at home and are part of a meaningful endeavor still have their place and can be wonderful enriching opportunities, ways of taking learning out of the classroom and making it a “real life” experience. Here’s one other exception:  boarding schools with supervised study halls which are basically extensions of the classroom and of the learning day have the requisite time and resources to negate many of the harsh costs that others must pay. In these circumstances homework can bolster learning while inculcating good study habits. Otherwise though, I would make the most of class time and save the homework assignments for when they really matter.

In Defense of the Introvert Student

This post is from guest contributor Anthony Westcott.


photo by Shayla Beley


In the last few years, a good deal of dialogue has been generated in the media about the idea of introverts navigating a society that values extroversion. A best selling book by Susan Cain from 2012 called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking spotlighted the issue, and it was followed by a popular “TED Talk” of hers, as well as a raft of other books in its wake such as Laurie Helgoe’s  Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength, and Jennifer Kahnweiler and Douglas Conant’s The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength; just in the last month, there was a New York Times op-ed piece written by Vanessa Barbara about living as an introvert in the highly extroverted culture of Brazil. And this has been good news for introverts such as yours truly. While I think my passions for reading and writing led me to a career teaching English, it may seem ironic to others that an introvert should choose to spend each day interacting with classes of high school students. However, as these books will tell you, many introverts learn how to develop a form of extroverted behavior to fit into a role that demands it. Just think of famous actors like Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood who light up movie screens but are soft-spoken, even reticent individuals offstage. Indeed, many of my students would characterize my teaching personality in a classroom as dynamic but it’s the work of a performer, not the true self on display. The tradeoff for my psyche is daily lunch periods spent away from both colleagues and students solitarily plowing through books, recharging for an afternoon of more face time with kids.

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Should Students Have Phones in the Classroom?

cell phone classHere’s an article on an apposite topic for our times by colleague and guest contributor Jane Alwis.


Educators and school administrators appear to be split over the use of cell phones in the class room and in fact many schools currently have a difficult fight on their hands to enforce a ban they have in place on students carrying their personal phones to classes. Despite school policies requiring students leave their phones at home or leave them in school lockers, many students still insist on carrying them in their pockets. Asking teens to go without their phone is like asking them to go without a limb. If I had been asked my opinion of students carrying phones to class a couple of years ago, my answer would have been a resounding ‘no’, however I am now an avid supporter of embracing the technology that my students embrace. The new cell phones are convenient, user friendly and can do most things that a computer can do. They also have the advantage of being highly portable. At this time with the growing number of cell phone providers offering unlimited data plans for relatively little money, the average teen is connected where-ever he/she goes. I am not advocating that students should be entitled to run around with their phones all day doing as they wish, however it seems to me that they are a tool that can be used for the benefit of our students if we are willing to learn their capabilities and educate our students in the proper use of the technology for educational purposes.
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The Problem-Solving Humanities Classroom?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Math is an abstract subject which, to the novice especially, can easily become divorced from its real-world applications, devolving into a mechanical, step-by-step following of procedures. That’s one…

Should Students Have Phones in the Classroom?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Here’s an article on an apposite topic for our times by colleague and guest contributor Jane Alwis.   Educators and school administrators appear to be split over the…


Promoting Social Justice Through the Exploration of Literature

Thursday, April 17, 2014

By Kim Bonica, high school English teacher One of the many goals of any educational institution is to help shape students into educated, well-rounded, independent thinkers who will…


Khan Academy, Flipped Teaching, and the Inequalities of Standardized Testing

Friday, March 21, 2014

On March 5th, Khan Academy—the free, online learning platform comprised of video lectures—declared that they would be partnering with the College Board to give free testing software to the public. Fantastic, no? The strange partnership is touted as ushering in “a future determined by merit not money.” Yet if it is true what some recent studies have been claiming about the intractable snail’s pace of social mobility and the hereditary link to wealth, it might not have as much of an impact as hoped. Access is only one part of the complex problem of closing the achievement gap among disparate income groups. Moreover, what are we to make of this strange pairing?


May 2015
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