Find out how teachers use problem-based learning models to improve engagement and drive attainment.
What is problem-based learning?
Problem-based learning (PBL) is a style of teaching that encourages students to become the drivers of their learning process. Problem-based learning involves complex learning issues from real-world problems and makes them the classroom's topic of discussion; encouraging students to understand concepts through problem-solving skills rather than simply learning facts. When schools find time in the curriculum for this style of teaching it offers students an authentic vehicle for the integration of knowledge.
Embracing this pedagogical approach enables schools to balance subject knowledge acquisition with a skills agenda. Often used in medical education, this approach has equal significance in mainstream education where pupils can apply their knowledge to real-life problems.
PBL is not only helpful in learning course content, but it can also promote the development of problem-solving abilities, critical thinking skills, and communication skills while providing opportunities to work in groups, find and analyse research materials, and take part in life-long learning.
PBL is a student-centred teaching method in which students understand a topic by working in groups. They work out an open-ended problem, which drives the motivation to learn. These sorts of theories of teaching do require schools to invest time and resources into supporting self-directed learning. Not all curriculum knowledge is best acquired through this process, rote learning still has its place in certain situations. In this article, we will look at how we can equip our students to take more ownership of the learning process and utilise more sophisticated ways for the integration of knowledge.
Philosophical Underpinnings of PBL
Problem-Based Learning (PBL), with its roots in the philosophies of John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Jerome Bruner, aligns closely with the social constructionist view of learning. This approach positions learners as active participants in the construction of knowledge, contrasting with traditional models of instruction where learners are seen as passive recipients of information.
Dewey, a seminal figure in progressive education, advocated for active learning and real-world problem-solving, asserting that learning is grounded in experience and interaction. In PBL, learners tackle complex, real-world problems, which mirrors Dewey's belief in the interconnectedness of education and practical life.
Montessori also endorsed learner-centric, self-directed learning, emphasizing the child's potential to construct their own learning experiences. This parallels with PBL’s emphasis on self-directed learning, where students take ownership of their learning process.
Jerome Bruner’s theories underscored the idea of learning as an active, social process. His concept of a 'spiral curriculum' – where learning is revisited in increasing complexity – can be seen reflected in the iterative problem-solving process in PBL.
Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) framework aligns with PBL as it encourages higher-order cognitive skills. The complex tasks in PBL often demand analytical and evaluative skills (Webb's DOK levels 3 and 4) as students engage with the problem, devise a solution, and reflect on their work.
The effectiveness of PBL is supported by psychological theories like the information processing theory, which highlights the role of active engagement in enhancing memory and recall. A study by Strobel and Van Barneveld (2009) found that PBL students show improved retention of knowledge, possibly due to the deep cognitive processing involved.
As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham aptly puts it, "Memory is the residue of thought." PBL encourages learners to think critically and deeply, enhancing both learning and retention.
Here's a quick overview:
- John Dewey: Emphasized learning through experience and the importance of problem-solving.
- Maria Montessori: Advocated for child-centered, self-directed learning.
- Jerome Bruner: Underlined learning as a social process and proposed the spiral curriculum.
- Webb’s DOK: Supports PBL's encouragement of higher-order thinking skills.
- Information Processing Theory: Reinforces the notion that active engagement in PBL enhances memory and recall.
This deep-rooted philosophical and psychological framework strengthens the validity of the problem-based learning approach, confirming its beneficial role in promoting valuable cognitive skills and fostering positive student learning outcomes.
What are the characteristics of problem-based learning?
Adding a little creativity can change a topic into a problem-based learning activity. The following are some of the characteristics of a good PBL model:
- The problem encourages students to search for a deeper understanding of content knowledge;
- Students are responsible for their learning. PBL has a student-centred learning approach. Students' motivation increases when responsibility for the process and solution to the problem rests with the learner;
- The problem motivates pupils to gain desirable learning skills and to defend well-informed decisions;
- The problem connects the content learning goals with the previous knowledge. PBL allows students to access, integrate and study information from multiple disciplines that might relate to understanding and resolving a specific problem—just as persons in the real world recollect and use the application of knowledge that they have gained from diverse sources in their life.
- In a multistage project, the first stage of the problem must be engaging and open-ended to make students interested in the problem. In the real world, problems are poorly-structured. Research suggests that well-structured problems make students less invested and less motivated in the development of the solution. The problem simulations used in problem-based contextual learning are less structured to enable students to make a free inquiry.
- In a group project, the problem must have some level of complexity that motivates students towards knowledge acquisition and to work together for finding the solution. PBL involves collaboration between learners. In professional life, most people will find themselves in employment where they would work productively and share information with others. PBL leads to the development of such essential skills. In a PBL session, the teacher would ask questions to make sure that knowledge has been shared between pupils;
- At the end of each problem or PBL, self and peer assessments are performed. The main purpose of assessments is to sharpen a variety of metacognitive processing skills and to reinforce self-reflective learning.
- Student assessments would evaluate student progress towards the objectives of problem-based learning. The learning goals of PBL are both process-based and knowledge-based. Students must be assessed on both these dimensions to ensure that they are prospering as intended from the PBL approach. Students must be able to identify and articulate what they understood and what they learned.
Why is Problem-based learning a significant skill?
Using Problem-Based Learning across a school promotes critical competence, inquiry, and knowledge application in social, behavioural and biological sciences. Practice-based learning holds a strong track record of successful learning outcomes in higher education settings such as graduates of Medical Schools.
Educational models using PBL can improve learning outcomes by teaching students how to implement theory into practice and build problem-solving skills. For example, within the field of health sciences education, PBL makes the learning process for nurses and medical students self-centred and promotes their teamwork and leadership skills. Within primary and secondary education settings, this model of teaching, with the right sort of collaborative tools, can advance the wider skills development valued in society.
At Structural Learning, we have been developing a self-assessment tool designed to monitor the progress of children. Utilising these types of teaching theories curriculum wide can help a school develop the learning behaviours our students will need in the workplace.
Curriculum wide collaborative tools include Writers Block and the Universal Thinking Framework. Along with graphic organisers, these tools enable children to collaborate and entertain different perspectives that they might not otherwise see. Putting learning in action by using the block building methodology enables children to reach their learning goals by experimenting and iterating.
How is problem-based learning different from inquiry-based learning?
The major difference between inquiry-based learning and PBL relates to the role of the teacher. In the case of inquiry-based learning, the teacher is both a provider of classroom knowledge and a facilitator of student learning (expecting/encouraging higher-order thinking). On the other hand, PBL is a deep learning approach, in which the teacher is the supporter of the learning process and expects students to have clear thinking, but the teacher is not the provider of classroom knowledge about the problem—the responsibility of providing information belongs to the learners themselves.
As well as being used systematically in medical education, this approach has significant implications for integrating learning skills into mainstream classrooms.
Using a critical thinking disposition inventory, schools can monitor the wider progress of their students as they apply their learning skills across the traditional curriculum. Authentic problems call students to apply their critical thinking abilities in new and purposeful ways. As students explain their ideas to one another, they develop communication skills that might not otherwise be nurtured.
Depending on the curriculum being delivered by a school, there may well be an emphasis on building critical thinking abilities in the classroom. Within the International Baccalaureate programs, these life-long skills are often cited in the IB learner profile. Critical thinking dispositions are highly valued in the workplace and this pedagogical approach can be used to harness these essential 21st-century skills.
What are the Benefits of Problem-Based Learning?
Student-led Problem-Based Learning is one of the most useful ways to make students drivers of their learning experience. It makes students creative, innovative, logical and open-minded. The educational practice of Problem-Based Learning also provides opportunities for self-directed and collaborative learning with others in an active learning and hands-on process. Below are the most significant benefits of problem-based learning processes:
- Self-learning: As a self-directed learning method, problem-based learning encourages children to take responsibility and initiative for their learning processes. As children use creativity and research, they develop skills that will help them in their adulthood.
- Engaging: Students don't just listen to the teacher, sit back and take notes. Problem-based learning processes encourages students to take part in learning activities, use learning resources, stay active, think outside the box and apply critical thinking skills to solve problems.
- Teamwork: Most of the problem-based learning issues involve students collaborative learning to find a solution. The educational practice of PBL builds interpersonal skills, listening and communication skills and improves the skills of collaboration and compromise.
- Intrinsic Rewards: In most problem-based learning projects, the reward is much bigger than good grades. Students gain the pride and satisfaction of finding an innovative solution, solving a riddle, or creating a tangible product.
- Transferable Skills: The acquisition of knowledge through problem-based learning strategies don't just help learners in one class or a single subject area. Students can apply these skills to a plethora of subject matter as well as in real life.
- Multiple Learning Opportunities: A PBL model offers an open-ended problem-based acquisition of knowledge, which presents a real-world problem and asks learners to come up with well-constructed responses. Students can use multiple sources such as they can access online resources, using their prior knowledge, and asking momentous questions to brainstorm and come up with solid learning outcomes. Unlike traditional approaches, there might be more than a single right way to do something, but this process motivates learners to explore potential solutions whilst staying active.
Embracing problem-based learning
Problem-based learning can be seen as a deep learning approach and when implemented effectively as part of a broad and balanced curriculum, a successful teaching strategy in education. PBL has a solid epistemological and philosophical foundation and a strong track record of success in multiple areas of study. Learners must experience problem-based learning methods and engage in positive solution-finding activities. PBL models allow learners to gain knowledge through real-world problems, which offers more strength to their understanding and helps them find the connection between classroom learning and the real world at large.
As they solve problems, students can evolve as individuals and team-mates. One word of caution, not all classroom tasks will lend themselves to this learning theory. Take spellings, for example, this is usually delivered with low-stakes quizzing through a practice-based learning model. PBL allows students to apply their knowledge creatively but they need to have a certain level of background knowledge to do this, rote learning might still have its place after all.
Key Concepts and considerations for school leaders
1. Problem Based Learning (PBL)
Problem-based learning (PBL) is an educational method that involves active student participation in solving authentic problems. Students are given a task or question that they must answer using their prior knowledge and resources. They then collaborate with each other to come up with solutions to the problem. This collaborative effort leads to deeper learning than traditional lectures or classroom instruction.
Key question: Inside a traditional curriculum, what opportunities across subject areas do you immediately see?
2. Deep Learning
Deep learning is a term used to describe the ability to learn concepts deeply. For example, if you were asked to memorize a list of numbers, you would probably remember the first five numbers easily, but the last number would be difficult to recall. However, if you were taught to understand the concept behind the numbers, you would be able to remember the last number too.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge. It examines the conditions under which something counts as knowledge.
Key question: As well as focusing on critical thinking dispositions, what subject knowledge should the students understand?
Philosophy is the study of general truths about human life. Philosophers examine questions such as “What makes us happy?”, “How should we live our lives?”, and “Why does anything exist?”
Key question: Are there any opportunities for embracing philosophical enquiry into the project to develop critical thinking abilities?
A curriculum is a set of courses designed to teach specific subjects. These courses may include mathematics, science, social studies, language arts, etc.
Key question: How will subject leaders ensure that the integrity of the curriculum is maintained?
6. Broad and Balanced Curriculum
Broad and balanced curricula are those that cover a wide range of topics. Some examples of these types of curriculums include AP Biology, AP Chemistry, AP English Language, AP Physics 1, AP Psychology, AP Spanish Literature, AP Statistics, AP US History, AP World History, IB Diploma Programme, IB Primary Years Program, IB Middle Years Program, IB Diploma Programme.
Key question: Are the teachers who have identified opportunities for a problem-based curriculum?
7. Successful Teaching Strategy
Successful teaching strategies involve effective communication techniques, clear objectives, and appropriate assessments. Teachers must ensure that their lessons are well-planned and organized. They must also provide opportunities for students to interact with one another and share information.
8. Positive Solution Finding
Positive solution finding is a type of problem-solving where students actively seek out answers rather than passively accept what others tell them.
Key question: How will you ensure your problem-based curriculum is met with a positive mindset from students and teachers?
9. Real World Application
Real-world application refers to applying what students have learned in class to situations that occur in everyday life.
Key question: Within your local school community, are there any opportunities to apply knowledge and skills to real-life problems?
Creativity is the ability to think of ideas that no one else has thought of yet. Creative thinking requires divergent thinking, which means thinking in different directions.
Key question: What teaching techniques will you use to enable children to generate their own ideas?
Teamwork is the act of working together towards a common goal. Teams often consist of two or more people who work together to achieve a shared objective.
Key question: What opportunities are there to engage students in dialogic teaching methods where they talk their way through the problem?
Key question: Can teachers be able to track the success of the project using improvement scores?
13. Active Learning
14. Student Engagement
Student engagement is the degree to which students feel motivated to participate in academic activities.