Paula, ES, Science

Engaging Students in Critical Thinking Through a Problem-Based Approach

Paula Fraser, photo courtesy of Chad Coleman, Bellevue Reporter newspaper
Interview with Paula Fraser

In this interview Paula describes how she uses a problem-based approach to engage her students in critical thinking.

School: Stevenson Elementary (Prism Program), Bellevue, WA

Grades: 5th grade highly capable students     Classroom Size: 28

Subject: Social Studies and Environmental Science

Classroom Challenges:

  • At-risk Youth
  • Classroom Management
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Gifted or Advanced Learners
  • International Baccalaureate (IB)
  • Large Group Activities
  • Small Group Activities

Click on a topic below to read more about Paula's work:

Please describe your experience with Facing the Future materials and how you use them in your classroom:

"I use Facing the Future [lessons] to complement many other materials. I have all of the kids read Global Issues and Sustainable Solutions, as an introductory overview. Then students break into groups to research some of the topics, like governance, climate change, or world view. They have different ways of looking at the future after reading this. All kids experience some lessons in Engaging Students Through Global Issues when we are looking at issues of resource depletion. We do 'Fishing for the Future' and then I introduce some newspaper articles about real world cases [see Lesson 20 in Engaging Students Through Global Issues]. My students then examine how different people are fishing, what happens when there is conflict, who owns the ocean, and tragedy of the commons issues. Throughout the course Facing the Future materials are integrated as an overview"

Paula uses the following Facing the Future resources:

What standards were used or met when using Facing the Future materials?

"I teach environmental science, biology, and life science all year long. I am very attentive to those [standards], but I’ve also worked quite a bit on the social studies standards. Right off-hand I can't tell you the specific standards, but they are all listed in Engaging Students Through Global Issues. This book covers the social studies, geography, and civics standards. I feel that the Facing the Future curriculum covers standards on a basic level, but since I have highly gifted students I am expected to expand upon the basic standards."

What were your main objectives/goals for this course?

"There are pretty horrible things in the world. I always get teary-eyed when I say this, but I want to give them a sense a hope. I want them to understand that people cause problems, but people can also put their heads, creativity, and expertise together to solve problems. I also want them to learn critical thinking skills. I always ask my students to be mindful of the resources that we use. I want the kids to use their critical thinking skills, to critique everything we use."

Do Facing the Future resources help you address your classroom challenges?

"Definitely. I think that these lessons work well for small group discussions and activities. They allow for a natural progression from small group to whole group discussions and inquiry. They allow my students to provide individual input and criticism, while appreciating outlying view points. It is very meaningful to use small and whole group [activities]."

Paula's classroom challenges include:
  • "At-risk Youth
    Sometimes the gifted are perceived as a monolithic entity, but there is such a range of ability within the gifted community. Often times they have to hide who they are, because it’s not okay in this society to be smart. It’s really hard for them sometimes. 

  • Classroom Management
    I have to create a community of inquiry where all are responsible for learning, including myself.

  • Differentiated Instruction
    There is a wide range of diversity within any group of highly capable students.

    I am finding an increase in the number of ELL students coming to me and many speak a different language at home. There are some writing issues that I am dealing with, that I didn’t have when I first started teaching. Since they just learned a different language they are struggling a little bit with English. There is an ELL component, even among gifted kids.

  • Gifted or Advanced Learners

  • International Baccalaureate (IB)
    I use the IB inquiry approach with my students and they move into the IB the program in high school.

  • Large Group Activities

  • Small Group Activities"

Did you make adjustments to Facing the Future lesson(s)/reading(s) for your classroom type?

"I use Facing the Future lessons as an entryway into other lessons. It’s a basic way to get kids engaged in the content and to start thinking about sustainability. I use this as a foundation to dig deeper into the content. I really don’t have to make adaptations, since my students are able to digest [the lessons] pretty easily. I am not trying to say that it is simple, but it is more foundational for them."

What parts of the unit engaged your students the most?

"I really think it is important to do hands-on kinds of things. A lot of these lessons really are hands-on."

What resources do you use to complement Facing the Future materials?

"We use United Nations materials. I bring in a lot of guest speakers, even someone that was a defense attorney in the World Court. I've brought in scientists who are experts on climate change, we use Al Gore’s film [An Inconvenient Truth], lots of websites that I just let kids dig into. I don’t pre-screen websites because I have confidence in my students' critical thinking skills. They know that if they bring up a website that isn't high quality somebody else is going to challenge them. They really do keep each other honest.

A really, really good resource that I’ve used is Rx for Survival. These are exceptional DVDs that keep the kids really engaged. Last year the kids were really getting into global health, because of the swine flu epidemic. We also watch Rick Steves' DVD on Iran [Iran, Yesterday and Today]."

Did you incorporate an action project or service learning component in the unit/lesson?

"This actually was not original to me, but the International Baccalaureate program really places an emphasis on world citizenship and service learning. My students complete a research project and then send their findings to different organizations, like the United Nations and Doctors Without Borders. They send their research to these different specialists and we’ve kept a book of responses that we’ve received. People are amazed that these fifth graders have really thought about these issues."

Do these materials and teaching global sustainability help you be a better teacher?

"Oh, yes! I have a mission statement hanging above my door. I have the kids write a mission statement too. Mine is 'I need to learn the academics with academic rigor. I need the critical and ethical reasoning necessary to become a citizen locally and to make the world a better place'. I cannot remember the exact words, but the whole time that I’ve taught I've felt driven to make the world a better place. I know that sounds hokey, but I just think that these are really important issues. I don’t have time, the world doesn’t have time, and the kids don’t have time - we need to do important things now."

What resources do you have available to help you acquire new knowledge and skills in teaching about global sustainability?

"I’ve been able to participate with Foundation for the Future for about ten years. They bring together leaders in the local area, diverse perspectives, and local-global connections. I feel this group has caused me to fly higher, because of the really intellectually stimulating people involved. It’s just awesome to learn from people who are on the front lines, from people who are thinking deeply, and from people who have expertise in their areas. I learn a lot by reading on my own, but I really love to hear first hand from experts."

Other resources that Paula uses:

What advice, if any, would you give to teachers using these Facing the Future lessons for the first time?

"Take a problem-based and integrative approach. It’s important to give kids experiences, you know like 'Fishing for the Future', but to really push their thinking. Kids need to engage in more problem solving approaches, that integrate things like science, governance, social studies, and geography. This method is truly interdisciplinary. The world is very messy and not compartmentalized, so we need a multi-faceted approach to understand problems. I would really push this problem-based approach. I think that sometimes teachers may be a little afraid to do it, because they are afraid that things will get out of hand."

Anything else you’d you like to share with other teachers who are looking to engage their students in global issues and sustainability?

"Use local and global current events to make your content relevant. These issues come up all of the time in the news and they provide an opportunity for quick critical thinking exercises. They also provide students with different perspectives on issues. Have kids role play, reflect, and journal after they have heard the different perspectives. It doesn’t have to be a big extravagant thing, but just have that become part of what you do everyday."

Learn more about Paula's work:


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We equip and motivate students to develop critical thinking skills, build global awareness, and engage in positive solutions for a sustainable future through hands-on curricula and professional learning.

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