Navigating the Future in Education: Considering a New Set of Problems

AASA New Superintendents E-Journal October 2009

Dr Vincent HawkinsBy Vincent J. Hawkins
Assistant Superintendent, Springfield, Vt., School District

From YouTube and TeacherTube to research studies, books and the media, there is no shortage of support for education’s transition from 19th and 20th century teaching and learning practices to those deemed necessary to prepare our students for the 21st century and beyond. The dilemma is how to best make that transition. 

Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen and Innosight Institute Executive Director of Education Michael B. Horn infer in their 2008 Education Next article, “How Do We Transform Schools?” that if increasing student achievement is the goal of education, forcing innovations into existing school structures will not work. For example, 20 years and $60 billion later, computers in schools have not fundamentally transformed student achievement levels or the learning environment. 

So, what’s the answer? In How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, John Bransford, Ann Brown and Rodney Cocking (1999) suggest that  

  • Students come to school with preconceptions about how the world works;
  • Students must develop an understanding of facts and ideas within the context of a conceptual framework and how to organize knowledge for effective and efficient retrieval; and
  • Instruction must be approached in such a way that students are taught to think deliberately about how they are learning. 

Edutopia published a synthesis of studies in its Dec. 10, 2007, issue titled, “PBL Research Summary: Studies Validate Project-Based Learning.”Included was afive-year study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers involving more than 1,500 elementary, middle and high schools in 16 states that concluded: 

1. Students must be engaged in activities that build on prior knowledge and allow them to apply that knowledge to new situations;

2. Students must use disciplined inquiry; and

3. School activities must have value beyond school. 

The authors of Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce (Knapp et al, 2007) suggest that comfort with ideas and abstractions, creativity and innovation are the keys to a good life. They contend that employers the world over will be looking for the most competent, creative and innovative people--and will be willing to pay well for their talents.  

Problem-Driven Learning

To paraphrase one of the most common statements in the literature germane to 21st century learning, “It is our responsibility to prepare students for a world in which jobs, careers, and challenges do not yet exist.” Exposing students to current and future problems of a grand scale provokes curiosity and many “What ifs…?” Consider the following forecasts from:

  • By the year 2020, the world population will be 7.6 billion people (Bureau of the Census, 1996).
  • By the year 2030, 60 percent of the world population will be urbanized (United Nations, 2007).
  • By the year 2040, 50 percent of the world’s countries will use renewable energy (Refocus, 2006).
  • By the year 2050, the population of the United States will be 50% white, 50% non-white (Johnson, 2006). 

However, possible future issues should not dismiss those learnings that have withstood the test of time and that form the bond among generations of the past and those of the future. Historic turning points, great literature, entrancing compositions and heroism will never lose their luster and pertinence; they will continue to help define an educated person.  

The challenge is agreeing on how to transition from the current content-driven education platform (think subject area silos) to an in-depth, problem-solution based model that, while sustaining student motivation and relevance, does not compromise the accountability and rigor advanced by professional education organizations. 

Purposeful, developmentally appropriate problems should be the engine that drives learning and skill acquisition, not the other way around. Many schools provide a rich problem-solving environment, but not an antecedent. The contextual problem-solving model proposed here focuses on solving purposeful, relevant problems that, over time, become more challenging and skill embedded as the student advances. 

This proposed model influences what we learn (moving from a list of subjects to discussing and possibly solving contextual problems), where we learn (from going to a building to going anywhere), and how we learn (recent discoveries in cognitive science and brain research). 

According to Ilene Kantrov, director of the Center for Educational Resources and Outreach at the Education Development Center, “If you’re going to build skills like critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, and communication, you have to actually engage students in processes where they have to think critically, work in teams, and communicate with a variety of audiences” (Nastu, 2009). 

What does this model look like? High school students are presented with three types of real-world problems. While navigating the solution and addressing common questions, students learn specific skills connected to familiar content. In this model, attending to a student’s zone of proximal development is critically important. For students to be operating within their zone of proximal development (Dixon-Krauss, 1996): 

  1. They must be engaged in an instructional activity that is too difficult to be performed independently, and
  2. Their performance must be supported by an adult or capable peers. 

The problems students tackle may be classified as Utilitarian, Humanities and Global Community(see Table 1). These developmentally appropriate problems for ages 14–17 are constructed so students acquire substantive skills as they address the problems. These problems derive from various local, regional, national and international interests and challenges. 

The Problem-Solving Path

Solving these problems entails addressing components that advocates of 21st century learning indicate are necessary to adapt to a rapidly changing world. The most common components are: 

  1. Content convergence
  2. Critical and creative thinking
  3. Debate
  4. Ethics, dilemmas, and decision making
  5. Financial literacy and entrepreneurialism
  6. Global awareness
  7. Inquiry, investigation and curiosity
  8. Rapid change adaptation
  9. Time management
  10. Citizenship and civic responsibility 

In this model, “advisors” (no longer categorized as teachers) are basic skill handlers and resource technicians. Prior to student teams working on problem solutions, advisors give students formal instruction in those topics embedded in the problem. Advisors instruct students on how to work collaboratively; how to use constructive feedback, reflective thinking and questioning; and how to build consensus. They are tech-savvy enough to help students filter useful from useless information, gather supporting evidence, validate hypotheses, present arguments and sustain cognitive challenges. 

To help the student problem-solving team work efficiently and effectively, the advisor must be knowledgeable about each student’s background knowledge, strengths and weaknesses. In his 2009 Edutopia article “Ten Steps to Better Student Engagement,” Tristan de Frondeville presents an excellent protocol for working with students in this new or unfamiliar environment. 

To supplement the learning, the school provides an appropriate and accommodating learning environment, material relevance, a culture of rigor, formative assessments and immediate feedback, program evaluation and modification, and community communication. The community provides juries for student presentations, business internships, and encouragement and support for entrepreneurialism. 

Each student team that ventures down the problem-solving path must pass through these gates: 

1. Content convergence

This is the capacity to integrate historically diverse subjects, capturing those skills and concepts required to extend learning individually, as part of a team, or from a mentor. It is the essence of real-world problem solving. Studies in cognitive science document that we all learn better when we use new knowledge frequently and in varied contexts. Each problem solver will need to address certain skill requirements embedded in the problem’s sub-contexts. 

2. Critical and creative thinking

Critical thinking and creative thinking are two sides of the same coin. Combining logic and reason with creativity and divergence results in greater problem-solving success. Critical thinking is fundamental to preparing students to self-direct their learning rather than merely replicating what is already known. The critical and creative thinking environment focuses on the relationships among ideas, then weaves together the disciplined mental activities of evaluating arguments and making judgments with facts, concepts and principles in original ways, within the context of real-life issues.

3. Debate

Learner discourse needs to evolve into structured debate, which requires focused student research. Preparing for argumentation and rhetoric using logic, inductive and deductive reasoning, causation, expert opinion, analogy, comparison, empirical study, testimony, historical fact and statistics to criticize, analyze, validate and refute ideas enhances communication skills, empowers learners to take risks, deepens their declarative knowledge base and liberates them from perceived truths and factual misconceptions. 

4. Ethics, dilemmas, and decision making

Ethics are the moral standards by which behavior is judged. Areas include honesty, integrity, respect, confidentiality, responsibility and objectivity. Dilemmas may, for example, be ethical in which there is an apparent conflict in which the resolve is not right or wrong, but advantageous under certain decision-making conditions, or moral, in which one’s personal belief may conflict with the greater good.

5. Financial literacy and entrepreneurialism

Financial illiteracy enslaves, demoralizes and paralyzes individuals, families, businesses and societies. Knowing how to think economically, earn an income, save, spend and borrow, and manage money all support an emancipated life and, collectively, form defenses against predatory practices and restrictive social policies.  

Learners must understand the concepts, strategies and systems needed to interact effectively with others, the leadership traits and behaviors associated with successful performance, and the discovery-development-resourcing-actualizing-profiting schema associated with successful entrepreneurs. The difference between innovation that improves what is, and innovation that defines what could be, is risk. Entrepreneurialism is a cornerstone of free-market capitalism. 

6. Global awareness

Telecollaborative learning provides opportunities for student collaboration and engagement, often in real-time, on current worldwide issues through diverse and cultural perspectives, opinions, and backgrounds. Economic, political, social, cultural and educational manifestations all form the backdrop for student understanding of international relations. 

7. Inquiry, investigation, and curiosity

Integrative, purposeful advising, promoted by asking essential questions, supports curiosity and exploration. Rather than compromising or diminishing knowledge specificity, it authenticates it. Inquiry-based advising incorporates disciplined questioning, investigating and discovery. The learning engine is constantly fueled by collaborative intellectual curiosity. 

8. Rapid change adaptation

Synthesizing relevant information to construct new, flexible competencies results in malleable game-changers and organizational fluidity. Analyzing problems from various perspectives alters dispositions, attitudes and behaviors. Inertia, inflexibility and an inability to maximize learning are the results when improved applicability is incongruous with an expanded or changed knowledge base. 

9. Time management

Students need to be taught specific time-management skills, tips and guidelines. The current practice of multi-tasking contributes to conflict avoidance, distraction infusion, an inability to prioritize, inefficiency and error, and attention and task fragmentation. Time management focuses on efficiency discipline while allowing for flexibility and variation.

10. Citizenship and civic responsibility

The entitlement associated with freedom at birth in this country infers each person’s responsibility to provide for the common good. Citizens’ reliance on the actions of others perpetuates domestic stability and helps shape productive communities. 

Over the course of four years, high school students will solve an array of utilitarian, humanities and global community problems. Each solution pathway is embedded with specific, easily recognizable skills and concepts derived from the problems’ sub-contexts, framed within answers to related questions derived from 21st century skill sets. 

If we re-examine what is important for our students’ future and are confident the research and current practice among a few respected risk-takers supports a bold decision, we must develop a plan and make it happen. As President Reagan said on November 9, 1989, “…tear down this wall.” 


Bransford, J., Brown, A., and Cocking, R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. 

Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration (1996). International Brief: World Population at a Glance (September). 

Christensen, C. and Horn, M. (2008). How do we transform our schools? Education Next 8(3):  

De Frondeville, T. (2009). Ten steps to better student engagement., March 11, 2009.  

Dixon-Krauss, L. (1996). Vygotsky in the classroom. New York: Longman Publishers. 

Edutopia Staff (2007). Successful School Restructuring in PBL Research Summary: Studies Validate Project-Based Learning. In Edutopia, Dec. 10, 2007. 

Johnson, Angela (2006). “In 2050, Half of the U.S. will be People of Color.” In DiversityInc., October 11, 2006. 

Knapp, C. et al. (2007). Tough choices or tough times: The report of the new commission on the skills of the American work force. Washington, D.C.:National Center on Education and the Economy. 

Nastu, J. (2009). Project-based learning engages students, garners results. eSchoolNews special report, January 27, 2009. 

Refocus (2006). “OECD nations increase renewables share by 50% over 30 years.” (November-December, vol.7, #6, p.6). 

United Nations (2007). State of the World Population Report (July, 2007). Population Reference Bureau. 

Table 1: Problem Categories with Sub-Contexts 


Utilitarian Problems


Sub-contexts: math, science, engineering, communication technology, financial

literacy and entrepreneurship


Humanities Problems


Sub-contexts: language arts, ethics, our society, visual and performing arts,

health and well-being


Global Community Problems


Sub-contexts: History, geography, world languages, foreign and domestic

citizenship and culture, and environment