• If we cover Nebraska with solar cells, do we have enough power to eliminate our use of oil?
  • Can we replace traditional plastic shopping bags with water-soluble bags?
  • How can we redraw congressional district lines to eliminate gerrymandering?


These are challenging, complex questions. I don’t know the answers, and I’m guessing you don’t either. That makes them so much more engaging to high school students than the typical: “If two trains are going in opposite directions at a speed of….

Teaching with Problem-Based Learning (PBL), or inquiry, means turning our conventional instruction on its head. Instead of teaching students processes or telling them the answers we want them to learn, we give them complex, real world problems to solve.

This seems counterintuitive, maybe even impossible. We often think we have to build up students’ skills to expert level before we can give them interesting problems. But in fact, it works just the opposite. If we pose difficult questions, our students become intrigued — and that motivates them to hone their skills.

Consider this problem, explained in Graham Hall’s 2014 paper on real-world numeracy:

Using the “Epidemiological Parameter,” which describes the infectiousness of a disease, model the spread of a non-fatal form of influenza, showing the number of people in three groups: susceptible, infected and recovered.

Using problems like this with vocational school teenagers who were not highly motivated in math resulted in “higher levels of student interest and motivation” as well as growing student confidence in their own understanding of mathematical techniques, according to Hall.

Unfortunately, our lack of training and experience with PBL leaves us reluctant to try it in our own classrooms. It sounds good, but…

What if the students aren’t interested and engaged?

What if they don’t know how to start?

What if the problem is too easy or too difficult?

And what is my role in guiding them, if I’m no longer the expert?

But what if we tried it anyway? What if we designed just one inquiry activity for our students this year and tested it to see if it piqued student curiosity, taught the required learning standards, and resulted in deeper, more enduring student learning? It would be worth it.

In Chapter 5 of Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers, I explain how you can use Problem-Based Learning across the high school curriculum to deeply engage students in learning and improve student performance. (For a look at one inquiry lesson I designed, see Teens & Sleep on the NeverBore free resources page.)

This new video, the third in a series of six Beat Boredom videos, also provides a quick look at how I use PBL in my classroom.

Want to learn more about using PBL effectively in the classroom? Order a copy of Beat Boredom on Amazon, or fill in the contact request form on neverbore.org.

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