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Community Problem Solving

  • Introduction
  • Activity 1
  • Activity 2
  • Activity 3
  • Activity 4
  • Reflection


This module introduces Community Problem Solving as a teaching and learning strategy. As such, it is the ‘practical’ application module that builds on the ideas for citizenship education developed in Module 7. It also draws on the ideas about experiential, enquiry and values education, Future Problem Solving and learning outside the classroom in other modules.

Community Problem Solving provides students with an opportunity to practice the skills that are needed to participate in finding solutions to the local issues that concern them. This helps to develop the important citizenship objectives of learning for a sustainable future and integrates skills – for both students and teachers – of using experiential and enquiry-based strategies. It also integrates skills in the planning of values clarification and values analysis with the possible solutions so students can take action to help achieve a sustainable future.


  • To develop an understanding of Community Problem Solving, especially as it may be used in education for sustainable futures.
  • To identify the skills students need to participate in Community Problem Solving.
  • To explore questions and issues that may be encountered when teaching through Community Problem Solving.
  • To identify teaching and learning strategies that may be used as part of a Community Problem Solving project.


  1. Local concerns
  2. What is Community Problem Solving?
  3. Developing students’ skills
  4. Planning to use Community Problem Solving
  5. Reflection


Barrett,T., MacLabhrainn, I. and Fallon, H. (eds) (2005) Handbook of Enquiry and Problem-based Learning. Irish Case Studies and International Perspectives, AISHE, Released under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 licence.

Bardwell, L., Monroe, M. and Tudor, M. (1994) Environmental Problem Solving: Theory, Practice and Possibilities in Environmental Education, North American Association for Environmental Education, Troy, Ohio.

Bull, J., Cromwell, M., Cwikiel, W., Di Chiro, G., Guarina, J., Rathje, R., Stapp, W., Wals, A. and Youngquist, M. (1988) Education in Action: A Community Problem Solving Program for Schools, Thomson-Shore, Dexter, Michigan.

Hungerford, H. et al. (1988) Investigating and Evaluating Environmental Issues and Actions: Skill Development Modules, Stripes Publishing Company, USA.

Jensen, B.B. and Schnack, K. (1997) The action competence approach in environmental education, Environmental Education Research, 3(2), pp. 162-178.

McCain, T. (2005) Teaching for tomorrow: teaching content and problem-solving skills, Corwin Press.

OECD (1995) Environmental Education for the 21st Century, OECD, Paris.

Rogers, A. (ed) (1995) Taking Action: An Environmental Guide For You and Your Community, United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi.

Stapp, W., Wals, A. and Stankorb, S. (eds) (1996) Environmental Education for Empowerment, Kendall/Hunt, Dubuque.

Wals, A. (1994) Action Research and Community Problem-solving: environmental education in an inner-city, Journal Educational Action Research, 2(2), pp. 163-182

Internet Sites

Community Problem Solving Project @ MIT

Earth Force Youth Action Programme

On the Line – The Countries of The Greenwich Meridan

Points of Light Institute


This module was written for UNESCO by Bernard Cox, Margaret Calder and John Fien from material and activities originally written by Eureta Janse van Rensburg and Debbie Heck in Learning for a Sustainable Environment (UNESCO – ACEID).

Local concerns

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

What would your community look like if it were on course to a sustainable future?

Would there be:

  • A clean and safe environment?
  • A diverse and vibrant economy?
  • Good housing for everyone?
  • People who respect and support each other?
  • Celebrations of cultural, historical and natural heritage?
  • Co-operation and power-sharing between citizens and government?
  • Affordable health care for everyone?
  • Good schools?

These are all features of a healthy and sustainable community.

Community Problem Solving is a strategy for working step-by-step towards this goal.

This module begins with an exploration of issues and problems in your own local community.

Q1: List five issues or problems you are concerned about in your community.

In Module 1 you identified local examples of nine major concerns (Question 5) and investigated one in detail through the process of Strategic Questioning. For example they included:

  • Population
  • Industrial pollution
  • Low social and economic status for women
  • Loss of biodiversity
  • Unequal consumption
  • Poverty
  • Disease and malnutrition

It may be useful to review your ideas from these activities as a starting point when making your list.

Q2: What skills or experience do you have that might be helpful in finding a solution to any of these problems?

Q3: What are you currently doing to help address any of these problems?

Review reports of ‘success stories’ of young people and their teachers working to solve local community problems: cleaning up graffiti, saving energy, a river clean-up, providing recreation for senior citizens, publishing a community environmental inventory, and so on.

What is Community Problem Solving?

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

A Case Study of Community Problem Solving

Read a case study about the Park Beach Coastcare Project.

This is an account of the way a group of students in Australia helped restore a beach near their school.

Analysing the case study will help clarify what is involved in Community Problem Solving.

Q4: Answer the following questions about the case study:

  • What do you feel about the circumstances and events in the case study?
  • What do you think were the learning outcomes for the student?
  • In what ways are the teaching/learning strategies used in the case study different from strategies most often used in your school?
  • What skills did the teacher need to teach this way?
  • What problems do you think the teachers in the case study might have faced when they included this activity as part of the curriculum?

Community Problem Solving is a teaching and learning strategy that helps students learn to participate actively in addressing local community concerns, with a view to creating a more sustainable future.

Steps in Community Problem Solving

There are eight major steps for guiding students through the process of Community Problem Solving:

  • Taking action
  • Selecting problems
  • Investigating
  • Planning actions
  • Exploring community concerns
  • Assessing and developing student skills
  • Developing visions of a sustainable future
  • Evaluating actions and changes

All these steps are important but, no doubt, you noticed that the above list is not in a logical problem solving sequence. Re-arrange the steps into a more logical sequence.

Adapting the Eight Steps to Local Circumstances

The eight steps in Community Problem Solving do not have to be followed in a strict order. For example, as students develop confidence in Community Problem Solving, the need to assess and develop their skills will diminish. And often, new issues for investigation will arise as you progress through the steps, requiring a recycling backwards and forwards through the steps.

What is important is that the steps be used flexibly and be adapted to local circumstances, to your own students, and to your own approach to teaching.

Q5: Review the case study from Modules 15 and 24 about a geography class in Nepal that worked in their home village to develop a local sustainable development plan. Identify which of the eight steps were used and in what order.

Q6: Use your understanding of the Park Beach and Nepal case studies to identify four distinctive features of Community Problem Solving as a teaching/learning strategy.

Q7: Explain how you could use the Community Problem Solving approach to guide students through the study of a local issue.

Review a teaching guide for student participation in solving local transport problems.

Read about the Earth Force Community Action and Problem Solving Programme.

Service Learning

Service learning – through which students volunteer to work on projects in their communities (not necessarily problem-solving ones) – has a long tradition in education in some countries. Examples of service learning projects include: volunteering to assist in a hospital, kindergarten or other community centre; working in a youth conservation project; and developing a community education and information campaign around a topical issue.

Service learning is a common action that students and schools choose as a way of acting on – and achieving – the visions of a sustainable future that are developed during a Community Problem Solving project.

A recent evaluation of service learning revealed major impacts on students:

  • Over 95% reported that they were satisfied with their community service experience and that the service they performed was helpful to the community and the individuals they served.
  • Over 90% felt that all students should be encouraged to participate in community service.
  • 87% believed that they learned a skill that will be useful in the future.
  • 75% said that they learned more than in a typical class.
  • Approximately 40% reported that the service experience helped them think about and/or learn more about a future career or job.

The impacts on the students? attitudes to citizenship were also quite significant. Students showed positive, statistically significant impacts on three measures of civic development:

  • acceptance of cultural diversity;
  • service leadership; and
  • the overall measure of civic attitudes.

The impacts on civic/social attitudes were most evident among the high school students in the study. Participants in high school service-learning programs showed significant impacts on service leadership and the overall civic attitudes scale and a marginally significant impact on attitudes towards diversity. Middle school students, in contrast, showed some gains in the measures of civic attitudes, but none were statistically significant.

The largest impact on civic attitudes was on the measure of service leadership ? the most direct measure of student attitudes towards service itself. Here, the students reported that they felt that:

  • they were aware of needs in their communities;
  • they believed that they could make a difference;
  • they knew how to design and implement a service project; and
  • they were committed to service now and later in life.

These are all good indicators of a very clear and positive contribution to active citizenship for a sustainable future.

Source: Summary Report: National Evaluation of Learn and Serve America School and Community-Based Programs, prepared for The Corporation for National and Community Service by The Center for Human Resources, Brandeis University, USA, 1999.

Developing students’ skills

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Students use many skills when learning through Community Problem Solving. Four categories of skills are:

Group process skills
For example:
  • Taking different roles in a group and becoming a group leader when appropriate
  • Listening to and comprehending ideas
  • Expressing ideas clearly
  • Considering and respecting others
  • Providing constructive feedback to others
  • Exploring group decision-making processes
  • Monitoring ‘on-task’ behaviour of the group
  • Monitoring the time allocated for tasks
Information gathering skills
For example:
  • Using the library, including print and electronic resources
  • Designing data gathering strategies for the problem being investigated
  • Using scientific and social science techniques (e.g. water quality testing, social survey) for investigation
  • Identifying relevant agencies, organisations and members of the community
  • Requesting information from sources by writing letters, making telephone inquiries, or using email
Analysis and decision making skills
For example:
  • Analysing data gathered using scientific and social science techniques
  • Thinking critically and creatively about possible alternatives
  • Considering the values of other people and their own
  • Deciding on a course of action
  • Justifying decisions
Action and evaluation skills
For example:
  • Deciding on steps in an action plan
  • Freely choosing to take actions
  • Evaluating whether the changes that were the result of the actions, addressed the problem

Source: Adapted from Bull, J. et al. (1988) Education in Action: A Community Problem Solving Program for Schools, Thomson-Shore, Dexter, Michigan, pp. 267-269.

Teaching Skills

It takes a skillful teacher to teach skills to students.

Think back to a recent lesson when you taught your students a new skill. Recall what you did first, how you proceeded and what your students did in each step of the lesson. For example, you might begin by analysing a skill to identify its parts and demonstrate them to students.

Q8: List some steps you usually follow in teaching a new skill.

Compare your ideas with a sample list.

Planning to use Community Problem Solving

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Some of the problems that might occur when using Community Problem Solving include:

  • Some students might not be used to teachers asking them to choose the topic (ie. the local problem) they want to study.
  • Some students could be puzzled when the teacher sets a problem but does not tell them the answer.
  • Some students lose their concentration when they are taken out of the classroom on fieldwork.
  • Sometimes local problems of interest to students may be the cause of controversy in the community.

Q9: Identify some teaching ideas that could prevent problems such as these.

Selecting the Issue

Selecting an issue that is practicable for students to investigate is a key aspect of planning for Community Problem Solving.

The following criteria may help you – and your students – choose a possible project and location:

  • The locations are readily accessible to students.
  • There is no serious risk to the safety of students at these places.
  • The projects are within the range of ability of students.
  • There is a genuine need in the community for this problem to be solved.
  • Students believe the problem is significant to them.

Q10: Rank these criteria in order of importance.

It is important to bear these criteria for selecting problems in mind. However, experience indicates that students are most motivated when they work on problems of their own choosing.

Q11: Identify suitable teaching and learning activities that could be used at each of the eight steps in Community Problem Solving.

[An example is given in your learning journal for each step. Activities explained in other modules could be adapted and modified for use in many of these steps.]

Download a booklet on how to teach Community Problem Solving.


Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Completing the module: Look back through the activities and tasks to check that you have done them all and to change any that you think you can improve now that you have come to the end of the module.

Q12: How useful are the guidelines for teaching through Community Problem Solving in this sample lesson plan? Why?

Q13: Identify how easy or difficult it will be for you to do introduce each of the eight steps in Community Problem Solving in your teaching situation.

Q14: After you have trailed using Community Problem Solving with a class, review the process using questions such as these.

  • What aspects of the Community Problem Solving project were really successful?
  • Was there anything that you forgot to plan?
  • Did your students need more preparation before the fieldwork? In what area?
  • What changes will you make to this project before doing it with another class?