Waterford School District is empowering kindergartners to problem solve and lead their own learning by engaging in an innovative “problem-based learning” initiative.
At Haviland Elementary, one of nine elementary schools in the Waterford School District, students dig into problem-based learning (PBL) which offers “some sort of engagement with real-world, meaningful projects,” says kindergarten teacher Rebecca Matthews. PBL aims to promote critical thinking and student engagement.
Kindergartners initially gain knowledge about a topic and do research to solve open-ended problems. Along the way, they learn concepts from math, science, reading, writing as well as the arts.
Children approach problem-solving from their own individual perspectives and capabilities, which truly individualizes student learning.
“Rather than a typical project with instructions for students to do X, Y and Z, PBL is engaging for all of my students regardless of what they are able to do academically, socially or even emotionally,” Matthews says.
Launched in August 2021, PBL was adopted by the Waterford School District as an adventurous opportunity for students, and it’s really engaging for students to come up with creative solutions for real-world problems.
Matthews explains that while she is with her kindergarten students in their PBL zone, they fully engage in the activities she shares. “It’s kind of remarkable because it does not happen with everything else,” she says.
How PBL works
When teaching PBL to kindergarten students at Haviland, teachers walk students through a variety of problem-solving phases. The work begins with a key question —and critical thinking, investigation, teamwork and communication follow.
The Art of Shapes is just one of the PBL projects utilized at the school.
To promote critical thinking, educators pose questions like, “How can we make art that is inspired by the shapes around us?” Then, kindergartners start by creating an artist’s journal and sketching the shapes they see in their surroundings. Students go on to use those shapes to make their own art.
The PBL assignments can be short, or they can take up to three weeks to complete for the kindergartners, says Matthews. The Art of Shapes project, for instance, takes two to three weeks to complete. The students spend one week exploring and analyzing the shapes they observe, followed by two weeks of working on creations that were inspired by works of art.
When she uses the PBL method to instruct her students, Matthews says that trial and error is a big part of the experience, because often the best way to learn is by making mistakes.
“It is a rich, raw, messy trial they go through when they are doing whatever the project might be,” she explains. “One day, my students were working on a project called Makerspace, but they began realizing that sometimes it would not go the way they thought it would. So I asked them, ‘What are you going to do?’ and kept it really open-ended.”
In this way, students were challenged to solve problems, building important skills for this project — and for future academic learning. “I’m engaging my students with problem-solving and seeing success even though it was kind of messy along the way,” Matthews says.
Engagement and big benefits
Since the PBL technique fosters creativity of all types, Matthews sees that her kindergartners are drawn to the curriculum. Waterford School District has found that implementing PBL as a teaching strategy promotes student collaboration, self-learning and the development of diverse skills.
Because students recognize their own success, they benefit from plenty of intrinsic rewards, including building a lifelong love of learning.
“My kindergartners get so excited when we are doing PBL. That engagement and the excitement to learn is amazing to witness, to know that they are driving that, they are the ones pushing the thinking, they are the ones making the decisions. I’m just the facilitator and they are the ones stepping up. It’s so cool,” she says.
For Matthews, the key to teaching PBL to children as young as kindergartners is to maintain a kid-friendly environment.
“I enjoy my kiddos talking and asking questions,” she says with a smile. “At the end of our project, we set up a gallery and allow other grade levels to come tour their projects and ask the researchers questions. It was so much fun just to hear them talking about their work and the fact that they were taking ownership was amazing. That’s what problem-based learning is all about.”
Learn more about Problem-Based Learning throughout Waterford School District. Visit waterford.k12.mi.us.
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