3 Problem-Based Learning Ideas for Back to School 2023

Problem-based learning has become a proactive approach to help students develop critical-thinking and inquiry skills in the classroom. It differs from inquiry-based learning in that the focus of problem-based learning is on solving problems. Planned effectively, these problems are relevant to students’ lives, or impact them in one way or another.

Problem-based learning is a popular and effective strategy that promotes active learning and encourages students to think critically about authentic, real-world problems. Investigation, analysis, and creativity are all key components of a successful problem-based learning project or challenge. It can be implemented in the inquiry classroom from the beginning of the year across all subjects, and is instrumental in getting students to apply knowledge to real-life situations.

The following three ideas will provide teachers with ways to incorporate problem-based learning scenarios in elementary and secondary classrooms. Content can be modified to suit the grade level or curriculum for your students. This post may contain affiliate links. Please see our affiliate disclosure policy here.

The Importance of Including Problem-Based Learning

In order for students to deeply understand something, they need to be able to make connections, evaluate ideas, and produce new or original work. This aligns with the top three tiers in Bloom’s Taxonomy, as illustrated below:

Problem-based learning encourages students to be active learners, as they are motivated to find solutions to real problems that resonate with their interests and experiences. It also helps them learn to analyze information and develop solutions. Not only does problem-based learning promote these skills, but it also contributes to the development of teamwork and communication skills as students collaborate with one another to brainstorm ideas and share knowledge.

Furthermore, problem-based learning aids in knowledge retention. Studies have consistently shown that when students encounter problems that relate to their lives, they are more likely to retain and apply the knowledge gained through these experiences. This kind of learning empowers students to take ownership of their learning and become independent thinkers.

Implementing Problem-Based Learning

Below are some practical tips for implementing problem-based learning in both the elementary and secondary classrooms:

1. Choose relevant problems

Take some time to research current events and problems that are relevant to your students’ lives and interests. Ensure that these challenges are age-appropriate and relatable. Some places to look for these problems include:

Browsing TikTok for trends and pop culture news can be fruitful as well because your students (depending on their age) are likely coming across these trends in their spare time and probably have some opinions about it. For example, the 5-9 before 9-5 trend can spark discussions about productivity, energy, and habit formation.

2. Create a structure

For students who are new to problem-based learning or inquiry-based learning, designing a framework to guide students through the process will be helpful. Even if students have some experience with this kind of process, having the steps laid out for them will cut down on some of the more “administrative” tasks for them. Some steps include identifying the problem, research and analysis, solution development, and presentation.

3. Integrate curriculum expectations

Focus on the big ideas of a unit that can be broken down into different ways. Incorporate a cross-curricular approach so that you can touch on a variety of overall expectations; this also helps students see the interconnectedness of the entire problem. For example, if your problem involves investigating the 19th century in Canada, link science, geography, and art expectations in your planning.

4. Utilize technology and other resources

Remind students that problem-based learning isn’t about finding one “right” answer. They will instead need to explore a variety of solutions and determine, based on research, testing, comparing, analyzing, and evidence, which one is best. Incorporate technology and other resources to enhance the learning experience. Interactive planning tools, multimedia resources, and even incorporating ChatGPT into your lessons can be helpful during any process of problem-based learning.

#1 – Financial Planning

Financial literacy has recently been updated in the Ontario Mathematics Curriculum to include the coverage of money concepts, financial management, consumer and civic awareness, and how to make proper financial decisions. These are skills that are essential for students to have to be able to function in the real world. Knowing how to calculate unit prices and discounts, the difference between saving and investing, and identifying factors to consider when making basic decisions are all important lessons to learn.

With this topic, students will identify personal financial foals, learn about budgeting and saving, and explore ways to make smart decisions. Depending on the ages of your students, use one of the following scenarios:

  • Younger students: You have been asked to be part of a team of young adventurers who are embarking on an exciting adventure to a mysterious island. However, to fund the journey and explore the island, the team needs to plan their finances carefully.
  • Older students: You are a financial advisor who has been hired to help a 15-year-old student who wants to save money for college, buy a car, and plan for a trip after graduation. They have a limited budget and need your help to create a plan.

When it comes to problem-based learning, presenting students with a budgeting problem will provide them with a plethora of opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of these basic concepts. Not only will it encourage them to think critically about money, but it will also challenge them to think long-term about the decisions they make and the trade-offs that will need to occur.

Younger students

This problem begins with an introduction to some key concepts including financial planning, goal-setting, and budgeting. Students can learn how to track their expenses using a logbook or template. Some might even have a Kids Allowance Ledger to keep track of their allowance and spending money at home. Introduce the story of going on a journey to a mysterious island, but needing to plan for it. Discuss the concept of a short-term and long-term goal and brainstorm some examples. In addition, have them write down what financial goals they have for the adventure. These might include buying supplies, paying for transportation, or saving for an unexpected event.

Once the groundwork has been laid, students need to become familiar with tracking their expenses and budgeting. For this, students can work in small groups to allocate funds for different expenses, ensuring they remain within a set budget. Have groups present their budgets and ask other students to comment on these ideas and look for ways to make improvements. The goal isn’t to present a perfect budget, but to get classmates’ feedback on their ideas and work collaboratively.

From this point, students can be presented with different financial choices they may encounter during their adventure. For example, buying souvenirs, participating in activities, or donating to a local cause. Discuss the concept of “opportunity cost” to help them understand that their decisions often involve giving something up.

Presenting their ideas

Students can present their adventure budget in many ways, including a budget board, logbook entry, or PPT. They should explain their financial pals, budgeting strategies (for example, how did they save money?), and the decisions they made. They might find a decision tree or tree diagram useful for this. Canva also has lots of tree diagrams for students to customize.

Older students

The financial complexities of being a teenager are fairly common. Most of them want to find a balance between saving and spending, and usually those goals include some allocation for transportation, fun, and college or other post-secondary education. This problem-based learning idea combines financial planning, goal-setting, and aspirational thinking.

Begin by introducing the concept of financial planning and discuss the importance of setting clear financial goals. Brainstorm some goals and assess how realistic they are. Introduce the idea of a short-term, medium-term, and long-term plan, and encourage students to think about their aspirations for education, travel, and other categories. It might be useful to explain the importance of managing income and expenses by creating a chart or using budgeting software. Some examples of budgets and templates can be found here and here. Guide students to create their own budgets based on their financial goals, and explore the strategies students can use to prioritize spending, such as the 50/30/20 rule.

Once students have budgeted their money, introduce the concepts of saving and investing, emphasizing the benefits of starting early and compound interest. Students can investigate different savings and investment options available to young people – for example, low-risk investments, certificates of deposit, etc. A helpful task is to have students analyze hypothetical investment scenarios to understand potential risks and rewards. This will help inform them to make their own decisions within their budgets.

Presenting their ideas

Students can take a group approach and present their financial plans, explaining their choices and justifying their allocation of funds. Alternatively, students can submit a budgeting proposal and have their peers evaluate it based on an agreed-upon success criteria. It is important that students focus on the process of this project as opposed to creating a perfect budget. Encourage peer feedback and discussion to enrich the learning experience and provide valuable input.

Resources for this problem-based learning idea:

#2 – Utilizing Vacant Spaces

This is a problem-based learning activity that really hits home for me. In my city, homelessness has become a crisis. Despite several vacant buildings in the city’s downtown core, thousands of people are without a home and in desperate need of a long-term solution. This is an example of the kind of problem that really gets students talking. Not only do they have opinions about how to help, but they also have interesting ideas about what got them there in the first place. Done right, this inquiry helps to open student’s minds to possibilities they may not have considered about the circumstances surrounding homelessness.

Many students will ask “why can’t we just convert vacant buildings into homes for the homeless?” Others wonder why rules can’t be implemented that force property owners to turn over unused and vacant properties to the city to be converted to affordable housing. Of course, the answer is not so simple. If it was, we probably wouldn’t have a homelessness problem. So what causes this problem and how can we fix it?

The objective of this problem-based learning project is to empower students to think critically and develop solutions for utilizing these vacant spaces to support the homeless population. They will work as both advocates and urban planners. Through research, collaboration, and community engagement, students will design proposals to transform empty spaces into safe and supportive environments for the homeless. This can involve interviews, surveys, and working with community resources.

Understanding the scope of the problem

Understanding homelessness requires a deep dive. Not only do we need to consider the causes of homelessness, but also the challenges faced on a daily basis by individuals experiencing homelessness. Working as a whole-class to develop a shared understanding of the problem and the availability of vacant spaces in their city is a good place to start.

Once the facts have been discovered and students have a working understanding of the problem as it exists in their community, it’s time to conduct some surveys and research to identify vacant spaces that could potentially be repurposed for homeless support. Students will need to consider the age, safety, and accessibility of vacant spaces. They will also need to determine the proximity of the spaces to social services such as food banks, public spaces, and other resources.

Research existing initiatives and limitations

Remind students that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Encourage them to research successful initiatives and projects from other cities and how those projects have utilized vacant spaces to address the problem. Students analyze these case studies to draw inspiration and gather ideas for their own proposals. Some suggested projects for students to research include:

It is important to ensure that students understand the scope of the issue. Providing housing is only one step out of several to address the root problem of homelessness. Often, it is a combination of lack of housing along with lack of support and resources that create this problem. Prompt students to look deeper at these initiatives to see if they are addressing the entirety of the problem, or where there might be room for improvement.

For older students, encourage them to look at zoning laws and restrictions in their city to determine what can legally be done with vacant spaces. For example, who owns specific vacant spaces, and how can ownership be transferred? How long does a title transfer take? What facilities would need to be in place to support shelters for people experiencing homelessness? What are the property standards bylaws in your city? Knowing these things makes it easier for students to come up with more realistic and practical solutions.

Proposing solutions

Once students have had time to review existing projects, put them into groups to generate ideas for transforming spaces. Encourage students to think beyond shelters and consider other supports that could be added. For example, converting an old school into a multiplex apartment can include a community garden, pharmacy, or vocational training centers. Remind students about their previous research – homelessness is a multi-faceted problem that won’t be solved by simply giving people shelter. It is a complex issue that requires a holistic approach.

Students should ensure that their proposals are comprehensive and include the following things:

  • A vision and mission, along with some short-term and long-term goals
  • Plans for resource allocation
  • Potential partnerships with local organizations or charities
  • A way to measure the success and sustainability of their plan

Proposals can be presented to classmates, a panel of local community members, or a group of outreach specialists to consider. Encourage feedback and constructive criticism to help students refine and improve their proposals.

Resources for this problem-based learning idea:

#3 – Repurposing Rooftops

Anytime you look down on a city from above, you’ll likely notice a lot of bare rooftops. However, revitalized rooftops have become a huge opportunity recently, not only for real estate development, but also for the construction of outdoor spaces for people and plantlife. This shift in thinking has been helped by the pandemic, when we realized that having access to outdoor space was more valuable than we once thought.

The objective of this problem-based learning idea is to get students thinking about urban planning and how to utilize open space better. Similar to the above idea, students are tasked with identifying vacant spaces and proposing creative repurposing projects that enhance the community. Some goals of the project include the promotion of eco-friendly practices and social interaction. These are similar to the goals of the Rotterdam Roof Days which aim to incorporate unused rooftops into thriving spaces to improve quality of life.

Students have a lot of room for creativity with this task. Begin by showing students some photos of rooftops and discussing what they are currently used for; some examples include water tank storage, elevator machine rooms, and cooling towers. Discuss how a rooftop can incorporate those things while also fulfilling other purposes too.

Some questions that may arise include:

  • What circumstances might persuade a real estate developer to include rooftop space as a selling point when selling a property?
  • How might rooftop redesigns convince a housing corporation to invest in rooftop repurposing?
  • To what extent do laws and regulations need to be changed?
  • What are the main reasons why rooftops are not being fully utilized yet?
  • Who should be responsible for funding a rooftop renovation?
  • Should rooftops only be accessible by the people living or working in the building below?
  • What career professionals would need to be consulted to participate in this kind of project?
  • Why is it necessary to repurpose rooftops, and who would be the biggest beneficiary?

Investigating solutions

Students have a lot of paths to take for this problem-based task. Here are some subtopics that can help structure their investigations:

1) Focus on the environmental benefits: Students can focus on the environmental aspect of repurposing rooftops. For example, students can be given different topics to investigate, such as urban heat islands, air quality, and biodiversity. From there, students focus on one benefit related to rooftop repurposing and present the benefits in terms of the assigned environmental factor. This focus is great for students concerned with climate change and providing solutions for people who don’t have access to air conditioners.

Related Reading: Inquiry Ideas for Environmentally-Aware Students

2) Providing for the community: In this line of inquiry, students focus on how a rooftop can contribute to the community. Students identify, through surveys or interviews, what their community needs most. For example, is their community desperate for more green space for kids? Is their city in dire need of community gardens? How important is urban food production in their area? Once the data has been collected, students can begin to create proposals for how to utilize existing rooftop spaces in the most beneficial way. They need to consider things like sunlight exposure, structural feasibility, safety, and other factors in their proposals.

3) Socialization benefits: Another option for students is to explore the community-building benefits of repurposing rooftops. Perhaps they envision a rooftop soccer field, pickleball court, or multi-purpose park. These would provide plenty of opportunities for people to interact with one another and encourage community-building. Aside from sports, rooftops can be converted into spaces for mediating, lounging, remote work, cooking, and catching up with friends. Encourage students to consider ways in which rooftop spaces can be used for families, working professionals, sports teams, and other groups.

Resources for this problem-based learning idea:

Final Thoughts

Hopefully the ideas above have provided some useful ways to incorporate problem-based learning scenarios in elementary and secondary classrooms. It is truly a valuable approach to engage students in any classroom. Through investigating real-world challenges, problem-based learning offers students the chance to think critically and creatively, and collaborate with their peers to produce something tangible and practical. As educators, we have the chance to inspire young learners to embrace problem-solving and cultivate the skills needed to prepare them for the challenges of tomorrow.

Additional resources:

Have you used problem-based learning in your classroom?
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