Preparing for the Future Through Problem-Based Learning

October 29, 2018

The 21st Century has brought many new challenges for educators. In order to meet these challenges, prioritizing critical thinking and problem-solving has become a top concern among teachers -- as well it should. Teaching and encouraging a love of learning by simply accumulating and disseminating textbook based materials is not the answer. Problem-Based Learning is!

Problem-Based Learning or “the other PBL” is an alternative pedagogical approach that happens to be ideal for establishing and strengthening problem-solving skills in students. Essentially, problem-based learning involves posing complex and open-ended, real-world questions to your students in order to promote a deeper understanding of concepts and principles (as opposed to simply presenting a bunch of facts in class).

PBL mimics the natural way human beings learn, namely by seeing and doing. Infants learn to speak by seeing, hearing, and mimicking sounds and speech. In this same way, students may observe a problem, try things to solve it and apply newly learned knowledge to their everyday lives.

After developing PBL in her own classroom for several years, Bridget Spackman, a Central York School District (PA) teacher, Instagram, and Youtube educational influencer, created a “Genius Hour” for her students. Based on a program at Google where engineers are allowed to spend 20% of their work week on an outside project of their choosing, Spackman allows students to dedicate a total of 10% of their week to research and development of a problem they feel passionate about. "This allowed them to incorporate skills that they were learning in reading, writing, mathematics, and science while working on ideas that increased student engagement," Spackman explains. With this practice, students are driven, they desire to improve, rather than feel obligated or pressured to improve. In this way, the teacher becomes a partner and mentor for students, as well as an instructor.

PBL can be incorporated into any class. While core questions and problems might vary across diverse subject matter, problems can be identified from many sources of inquiry. These problems should be well-defined and ultimately open to multiple solutions, designed by the students. Presenting and distributing a PBL exercise can be done in a variety of ways, through case studies, role-plays, or simulations.

Here are five characteristics to consider when implementing PBL in your lassroom:

  1. The problem should motivate students to want to look deeper and know more.
  2. Students need to make decisions based on a well-articulated rationale.
  3. The problem should link previous class material with the content objectives.
  4. The problem needs enough complexity to encourage groups to collaborate in order to discover it’s breadth and to solve it.
  5. For a multi-step PBL exercise, the initial steps of the problem should be open-ended enough to draw students in.

Teacher Maggie Kay shares her personal experience with PBL explaining that:

“When I am working on a PBL unit with my students, the average class period might seem chaotic to an outsider. Students are often working together in self-selected groups. They are all working on different parts of the project at the same time. There is very little direct instruction. As the teacher and facilitator, I am moving between groups, helping students with obstacles and encouraging them when they need it.”

(Need a little inspiration? Check out a few PBL projects already completed here.)

Problem-based learning is a student-centered, inquiry-based pedagogy. Once a PBL project is completed, students are asked to present their findings and conclusions. And, develop these key skills along the way:

  •  Authentic engagement and self-directed learning
  • Collaboration and inquiry
  • Data analysis and decision-making
  • Metacognitive skills such as evaluation, self-assessment, and critical thinking
  • Intrinsic motivation and reflection

Intrinsic motivation is key to making PBL a success in the classroom. This type of motivation is innate, it comes from genuine interest from the student - not from extrinsic motivation which involves rewarding the student with a prize, for example. (See more on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation here.)

Intrinsic motivation relies heavily on self-confidence and the realization of self-ability. In “Common Core Standards and the Multiple Intelligences: Implications of a Rigorous Curriculum for Teachers, Arts-Technical Educators and Schools”, Branton Shearer shares that intrinsic learning enables students “to perform at a more self-disciplined and rigorous level”.  They are given the choice to solve a problem - a problem that challenges their individual abilities - and a real-world application that they can apply to their future career. As you can see, there’s a theme here: self. The student is empowered to take control of his/her education in a beneficial and long-lasting way, while collaborating with peers and instructors.

Empowering students

PBL places greater responsibility on students. It provides the foundation and practice of managing their own learning - which can feel like embarking on uncharted territory to both students and teachers. By applying the five characteristics above, structured PBL learning allows students to learn, share, and collaborate.

Regardless of the chosen technique, the main objective and benefit of problem-based learning remain the same: students acquire a higher ability to solve real problems by applying deeper thinking.

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