Thursday, July 12, 2012

Real-Life Problem Solving: What American Education Lacks

            I love the way students become engaged in learning when they are motivated by real-life problems. It is often difficult for students to make a connection between what they are learning in school and “real” life. Finding solutions to real-life problems allows students to see that what they are learning is relevant to their lives, and that it is important for them to learn it. It sounds like a simple teaching strategy, but in fact, most American public schools don’t present students with such tasks. Students learn math, science, language, geography, etc. in isolation, and are never actually able to connect the subjects with each other, let alone with what happens in the world outside of school.

What can happen when students are given a real-life problem to solve is magic. A group of physics students at the University of Leicester in Britain recently wrote a paper titled “Trajectory of a Falling Batman.” They made extensive calculations on whether or not Batman could indeed glide with his cape and land safely, as seen in the 2005 movie Batman Begins. Now that’s an awesome real-life problem. What if these students wanted to make a Batman movie and had to decide how to create such a stunt? Is it possible that Batman would land safely or are they going to have to use creative computer-generated images?

For those of you who are wondering, the students discovered that Batman could glide for 350 meters using his cape if he jumped off of a building 150 meters tall. Unfortunately, he would land while he was going 50 mph. Mythbusters fans would call this stunt “BUSTED!”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could engage our students in real-life problem solving? Can you imagine how much they would learn? Of course, what they learn isn’t necessarily quantifiable in terms of standardized multiple choice tests. Maybe that’s the problem with American education.