I’m sure you have heard something like, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” “No pain, no gain,” or Robert Schuller’s, “Problems are not stop signs, they are guidelines.” Well, soundbites like these are often true for your students too. They don’t merely need information, they need a problem to solve. So, you got a problem? If so, give it to them, if not, design one.
In speaking of the classical model of education, education has three basic levels: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar is the basic vocabulary collecting and memory phase. It’s where people get attuned to the language, concepts, and procedures. Logic is where the “whys” start. It involves getting under the hood a bit to discover how things work or why things are a certain way. Logic is the researching reasons and arranging them in a coherent argument phase. Lastly, is the rhetoric phase. This is where it’s all put together. In the rhetoric phase, students learn to think through things in a given context quickly adapting principles to various contextual environments. Of course, this summary does this model little justice, but I wanted to point out two common equal and opposite errors.
The first error I often see is the expectation of students to be at an advanced level performing rhetoric-level work, yet having barely touched on the basic grammar of a content area. We want our students to be sharp thinkers and problem-solvers, yes. But, they first much learn the tools and the content basics. The other error I see is to not extending student learning to the advanced level. Though often the logic level is reached through research papers, writing critiques, rebuttals, structured reflections, etc. it is still not really pushing through knowledge to get to wisdom.
In Bible times, wisdom was largely weighed by one’s ability to solve problems. Think of Solomon’s epic solution concerning the two women claiming to be the baby’s mother. Think of Proverbs in general. Wisdom was seen as solving problems. Problems, trials, etc. aren’t all bad. James tells us to count such things as pure joy. Why? They are to help us to become/be perfect lacking nothing (Ja 1:2-4). Paul speaks about us rejoicing in suffering because it builds endurance, character, and hope (Rom 5:3-4). We can learn and grow a lot in working through problems to a viable solution. Your students will too. Give them a problem.
This is not an entirely new thing, most assignments that aren’t doing this already are fairly close. When students are ready (don’t skip the grammar phase), simply add a specific context or urgency to the assignments already requiring demonstration of a proper grasp of the material. Instead of merely summarizing something(s), ask students to explain it to a layman in the midst of a decision, to a supervisor or board member in defense of their position against the one in authority, etc. Give students a specific audience to tailor their presentation of material. Design a crisis where they will need to grasp the material and apply it to the particular instance. Making it more “real” for them takes them to a place mere recitation can’t. And, if they become emotionally invested in the problem, so much the better.
So, you got a problem? If not, design one; your students need them. For further reading on this, John C. Bean’s book Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Critical Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, and James R. Davis’ and Bridget D. Arend’s book Facilitating Seven Ways of Learning: A Resource for More Purposeful, Effective, and Enjoyable College Teaching are great places to start.