Applying Problem-Based Learning to Current Events

As we concluded our Immigration Unit, it was an excellent opportunity PBL vs. Traditionalto take our first dive into problem-based learning. Problem-based learning, or PBL, is a student-centered approach to inquiry. The web is full of ways to do PBL, but I feel like they often put the cart in front of the horse. I like to use PBL to make what’s “old” relevant again. Meaning, I want to take the lessons and what we learned in class to inform us and make a decision as it applies to a real, current problem in the world. One marched right into our laps! For me, I had students work in groups and introduced the problem (sometimes students identify one on their own, though not now), identify what they need to know, learn more about the problem, and formulate a solution. It’s a real-world problem to solve which employs knowledge and skills which we learned in class. The current crisis over the Honduran migrant caravan presents a perfect opportunity to employ problem-solving skills.

First, some context. Students spent October studying immigration. Students conducted research around question they created (ex: how do immigrants today compare to those one hundred years ago?) and produced an inquiry-based project. I also lead activities to help students learn why different immigrant groups came to America, the problems they faced both at home and here, and different kinds of immigration. We also learned how immigrants come into America, earn citizenship, and sometimes run afoul of the law. icivics produces an excellent game to practice this, too!

After an assessment to measure some of what we learned, I wanted to apply our knowledge to a real-world, current problem and REALLY assess what we know. The migrant caravan is an excellent test of both putting past into the present context, and evaluating a problem to provide solutions. My students broke into groups, were introduced to the problem, and then brainstormed what they needed to know. This was essential and involved a great deal of questioning. Students then researched, shared sources, and discussed as a class what they discovered about the caravan, border safety, and immigration policy. As students brainstormed solutions, they needed to evaluate how three main groups would react: Americans, the migrants themselves, and our neighbors to the south. Sure, we can be more nuanced than that, but for the purpose of this project that was plenty of perspectives to consider. Just “letting them all in” would upset many Americans, and “saying go home” would do damage to the other two parties. We’re trying to find common ground and a solution that builds toward better conditions for us all. Just saying “no go home” doesn’t help our neighbors or prevent future migrant caravans from coming.

Here are the solutions my students came up with.

  • Work with other North and Central American nations to share the burden of immigrants and relocate them there.
  • Work with states who need workers and relocate the immigrants there.
  • Build a tent city for immigrants to stay in until we can find a home for them.
  • Secure the border with the military and jail those that cross illegally.
  • Grant asylum to anyone who qualifies, send the rest home.
  • Work with companies to provide work visas to qualified immigrants.
  • Conduct background checks and evaluate their stories.
  • Provide education and law enforcement assistance to countries like Honduras so that we can avoid future caravans.
  • Create a Great Depression-like infrastructure plan to put migrants to work and help our nation improve roads, bridges, etc.
  • Help them find jobs.
  • Create and work with advocacy groups to help them find homes.
  • Find American families to “adopt” families until they can find a destination.
  • Gradually allow immigrants into the country while holding and evaluating asylum applicants in a temporary city.
  • Bring them to Puerto Rico to help rebuild and establish their own community with the territory.
  • Many plans included a variety of points above.
  • Many plans included timelines of 90 days, 6 months, or a year.

Better than any solution was their willingness to compromise. Many classes combined ideas and were willing to bend on their positions without compromising their goal in order to bring other groups into the agreement. I’m happy to see them build great plans and it was an excellent exercise in taking what we learned and giving it a real, live purpose. History certainly comes alive in settings like this!