Engaging Teachers and Students as Problem-Solvers

May 16, 2016

By Carlos Espinosa Proaño, former Director General of the Colegio Británico Internacional de Quito and former Head of Elementary Education at Colegio Terranova in Quito. 

Back in January, I was very pleased to be invited to join a team of professionals to conduct professional development for social studies teachers in Galapagos. I must admit that at that time I really didn’t know much about the situation in Galapagos, its teachers, or their training. Our goal was share techniques that engage children in the classroom and to make learning more meaningful. In other words, we sought to offer alternatives to more traditional, spoon-fed approaches and heavy emphasis on memorization.

Together with my co-trainer Isabel Patiño, we introduced Problem-Based Learning (PBL) to two groups of elementary teachers. PBL is a student-centered approach that challenges students to learn through their engagement in real-life problems. It simultaneously develops both problem solving strategies and disciplinary knowledge and skills.

Carlos reviewing a teacher's work.At first, teachers were a bit apprehensive and seemed wary of a couple of continentals (continental Ecuadorians, as opposed to Galapagueños) arriving with new ideas. But before long, it was clear that most were extremely dedicated and eager to learn about new educational approaches.

Over several sessions we modeled PBL using an important real-life issue in Galapagos: the growing population in the Archipelago. Specifically, we presented teachers with the following problem:

“A series of tweets from someone in Galapagos expresses concern about the growing population in Galapagos and generates national and international debate on this issue. In response, authorities assign a team of professionals to research this situation and to suggest solutions.”

Individuals were asked to write what they know about the issue on note cards, which were later shared with the group during a brainstorming session focused on documenting their collective knowledge about the issue.

We then encouraged teachers to analyze the information they had at their disposal and to identify the information they needed to advance their thinking. We also had them analyze different data sources, some of little or no validity, in order to stress the importance of helping students to differentiate between good and poor information sources.

From there, teachers were challenged to define actions to address the problem, and to formulate strategies to deal with any consequences of, or opposition to, the actions they proposed. Each team developed a road map for putting their recommendations into action.

Teachers during an ice-breaker.It was interesting to observe the teachers’ reactions to this approach. Some had an intuitive understanding of the process and just needed a little coaching to complete the assignment, whereas others became frustrated and needed more guidance to work through the process. However, in the end most of the teachers seemed to genuinely value the approach and believe that their students will feel empowered to learn skills and processes that will help them to define and achieve their goals.

It is important to improve educational practices throughout Ecuador, but in Galapagos improvements are particularly important. We must improve teaching facilities, educational practices, and teacher training in the Islands in ways that will help protect this natural wonder. I believe that this project will help make important inroads in this regard. It will help to significantly strengthen the skills of local teachers and empower these very influential members of the local population.

A comment made by teachers on the last day keeps ringing in my head: “You must come back.” Many teachers have felt abandoned by the system, and these five days of professional development showed them that they are important. We must continue these efforts to strengthen the educational system in the Islands, in close collaboration with local and national authorities, together with Galapagos Conservancy and its partners.

Carlos Espinosa Proaño is the former Director General of the Colegio Británico Internacional de Quito and former Head of Elementary Education at Colegio Terranova in Quito. Carlos has decades of experience as a classroom teacher, working with elementary grade students in Ecuador and the United States. All photos © Galapagos Conservancy.

Read part 3 of this blog series: Galapagos Reflections: Education in the Islands.

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  1. The importance of teacher training upgrades in the islands CANNOT be over-estimated! It is a great pleasure to watch the progress being made and the emotional and professional investment of teachers, students and families!!

  2. Estupendo!

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