Setting the Stage for Problem Based Learning

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Take a look at the strategic goal the Colchester Public School District is working on this year: “Students use academic, technical, social, and creative skills to innovate and solve personally meaningful real-world problems in a global context.”  We will be exploring problem based learning, and I couldn’t be happier! But how do we introduce problem based learning to young children, and how do we assess their learning?

Introducing Problem Based Learning with a Picture Book

I am willing to bet many of you are familiar with the picture book entitled “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba. If you are not, you must read this picture book and buy a copy for your collection because it exemplifies the importance of a library. In this story, young William Kamkwamba, was living with a real world problem when his small village in Africa was suffering from a severe draught, leaving their crops barren and the villagers starving. William searched through books in the library to try to find a solution to the problem. One book helped him discover that a windmill could supply the power needed to light lightbulbs and run an irrigation system, so he built a working windmill that ultimately saved his village from starving.

Follow Up Activity

After reading “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba, ask children to explain what the problem was that William faced and discuss how he was he able to solve the problem. Let children know that they can also solve problems just like William did by using books in their library. Give students the opportunity to think about what they want to learn in the library. Let them turn and talk with their neighbor to share their ideas. Then, ask the children to write their thoughts on a piece of paper shaped like a thought bubble, and take a picture of each child in a thinking pose.  Once the pictures are printed or developed, tape each picture and their thought bubble on a “Wonder Wall” in the library along with the Dewey Number on the topic they are interested in investigating. The next time the children visit the library, show them their picture and the Dewey Decimal number that is attached to their picture. Then, help them use the Dewey Decimal number to find their books. As the year goes on, invite children to add more thought bubbles to their picture, and encourage them to add the Dewey Numbers to their thought bubble.


Assess Problem Based Learning

 While scouring the Internet for problem based learning rubrics and brainstorming with classroom teachers, it finally occurred to me that I solve problems all the time. What are the steps I take when solving problems? Wouldn’t I want students to work through and master the same steps? With these thoughts in mind, I decided to create a framework based on a problem solving process I recently worked through with our Summer Reading Program. Below is a description of my problem solving process along with objectives that can be assessed.

I can state a problem: Last May, I faced a problem. How do I motivate our students to read every day over the summer? Year after year, the Literacy Specialist, Erin Hermann, and I would work on different incentives to motivate children to read. Although we have reached many children in the past, we wanted to reach every child, and we knew that it would take more than just the two of us. We needed the help from administrators, teachers, parents, and the public library to have an overreaching, successful summer reading program. (Yes, Maureen can state a problem).

I can explain what I already know about the problem. I already knew that the public library would partner with us as they have done so in the past, and we have a great working relationship with them. I also knew that some children read over the summer but did not record their reading progress because their families just wanted to read for the pure joy of reading and not for the points, trinkets, or recognition. (Yes, Maureen shows evidence that she can explain what she already knew about the problem).

I can brainstorm ideas with others and find resources to answer my questions.  An impromptu meeting in the library with two classroom teachers and the administrator led to a great discussion with everyone sharing their ideas on how to encourage more families to take part in the Summer Reading Program. It was important to have insight from the classroom teachers while solving this problem, especially knowing that one of the teachers in the conversation happened to be a parent of two of our students. Together, we thought it would be great to hold weekly evening reading programs at the public library where teachers would volunteer to read to the children while we served pizza. We also created a marketing campaign where we took pictures of teachers hiding behind their favorite books and posted a weekly teaser on social media and our district website saying, “Guess who is reading at Cragin Public Library tomorrow at 6:00?” (Yes, Maureen can share her ideas with a group).

I can listen to other ideas even though they are different then my ideas.  I was hoping for a weekly program that would happen during lunch because I would be able to keep up with the summer work in our school library and then head to the public library for the Summer Reading Program. With an evening story time and the school closing at 3:30, I really didn’t want to run home (40 minutes away) and run back up to the public library for the evening program. But I knew an evening  was a better idea because it would be perfect for family members who would appreciate having dinner already taken care of with bedtime following soon after. I agreed to the evening story time. (Yes, Maureen can try other ideas).

I can list the jobs that need to get done in order to solve the problem, and I can make sure everyone in my group has a job to do. We needed money for the pizza, teachers to volunteer to read, and someone to market the weekly programs. One teacher wrote a PTO grant for the pizza, and I contacted the public library to find out if we could hold weekly meetings at the library. With the library room reserved and the funding secured, we asked teachers to pair up and volunteer to read. A teacher created a calendar of events for report cards that announced the dates the teachers were reading. The administrator began using social media and our district website to promote the program. Our administrator also promoted the summer reading program at a faculty meeting by asking all teachers to bring their favorite book to the meeting and write a description as to why their book was their favorite. I took a picture of each teacher holding their book and put their picture along with their description in a binder for the public library to use as a reference for children to read to get book ideas. (Yes, Maureen can create a list of jobs that need to be done to solve the problem and make sure everyone in the group has a job to do).

I can make changes to the plan along the way if something isn’t working. The great news about the Summer Reading Program was that we had a lot more people attend the program than we anticipated. So many families left the public library with their arms full of library books to read at home. On the flip side, because there were so many people, we didn’t have enough pizza on the first night. We needed more sheet pizzas for nine more sessions. Luckily, an anonymous donor kindly took care of the difference so that everyone who attended the story hour would have enough to eat. (Maureen is flexible and perseveres when things don’t go as planned).

I can present the solution to the problem to an authentic audience. I created an Animoto about our Summer Reading Program to share with parents through Twitter and our district website. (Maureen is able to share the results of her problem solving process with an audience).

I can reflect on the process to think about what went right while I tried to solve the problem and what I need to change when solving the next problem. We received positive feedback from parents who attended the story time. They loved seeing their teachers over the summer, and they enjoyed eating pizza with their friends. We learned that we need to reserve a larger room next year so that everyone can fit in the room rather than spilling out into the hallway and secure more funding for the pizza. (Maureen reflected on the process to determine what went well and what didn’t go well so she can apply what she learned the next time she has a problem to solve).

Now that the basis for the rubric is set and the children have their thought bubbles filled out, I am ready to begin tackling some of the problems the children want to solve in first grade. I think I’ll start with this one: How do I find a book in the library?




Work Cited

“Colchester: Strategic Plan.” 2008. 9 Sep. 2015 <>


Author: Maureen Schlosser

Author: Lessons Inspired by Picture Books for Primary Grades and Social and Emotional Learning for Picture Book Readers published by ALA Editions
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Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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