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by Robert Delisle
Table of Contents
To organize education so that natural active tendencies shall be fully enlisted in doing something, while seeing to it that the doing requires observation, the acquisition of information, and the use of a constructive imagination, is what needs to be done to improve social conditions.
. Dewey 1916, 1944, p. 137
All education involves either problem solving or preparation for problem solving. From mathematical calculations (“What does this equal?”) to literary analysis (“What does this mean?”) to scientific experiments (“Why and how does this happen?”) to historical investigation (“What took place, and why did it occur that way?”), teachers show students how to answer questions and solve problems. When teachers and schools skip the problem-formulating stage—handing facts and procedures to students without giving them a chance to develop their own questions and investigate by themselves—students may memorize material but will not fully understand or be able to use it. Problem-based learning (PBL) provides a structure for discovery that helps students internalize learning and leads to greater comprehension.
The roots of problem-based learning can be traced to the progressive movement, especially to John Dewey's belief that teachers should teach by appealing to students' natural instincts to investigate and create. Dewey wrote that “the first approach to any subject in school, if thought is to be aroused and not words acquired, should be as unscholastic as possible” (Dewey 1916, 1944, p. 154). For Dewey, students' experiences outside of school provide us with clues for how to adapt lessons based on what interests and engages them:
Methods which are permanently successful in formal education . . . go back to the type of situation which causes reflection out of school in ordinary life. They give pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results (Dewey 1916, 1944, p. 154).
More than 80 years after that was written, students still learn best by doing and by thinking through problems. Educators who use problem-based learning recognize that in the world outside of school, adults build their knowledge and skills as they solve a real problem or answer an important question—not through abstract exercises. In fact, PBL originally was developed for adults, to train doctors in how to approach and solve medical problems.
Traditionally, medical schools taught doctors by requiring them to memorize a great deal of information and then to apply the information in clinical situations. This straightforward approach did not fully prepare doctors for the real world where some patients might not be able to identify their symptoms or others might show multiple symptoms. Though students memorized basic medical information for tests in their courses, they did not know how to apply the information to real-life situations and so quickly forgot it.
Recognizing that Dewey's maxim held true for medical education, Howard Barrows, a physician and medical educator at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, wanted to develop methods of instructing physicians that fostered their own capabilities for reflection outside of school in ordinary life. For Barrows, the ultimate objective of medical education was
to produce doctors capable of managing health problems of those who seek their services, in a competent and humane way. To do this, the doctors . . . must have both knowledge and the ability to use it (Barrows 1985, p. 3).
While most medical schools focused on providing knowledge, Barrows thought this was just the first of three interdependent elements:
(1) an essential body of knowledge, (2) the ability to use . . . knowledge effectively in the evaluation and care of . . . patients' health problems, and (3) the ability to extend or improve that knowledge and to provide appropriate care for future problems which they must face (Barrows 1985, p. 3).
Medical schools generally agreed on the content that should be taught; how this material should be learned remained an issue. Barrows developed problem-based learning to
allow [medical] students to integrate, use, and reuse newly learned information in the context of patients' problems; the symptoms, signs, laboratory data, course of illness, etc., provide cues for retrieval in the clinical context (Barrows 1985, p. 5).
This led to his first educational objective for PBL:
The medical students we educate must acquire basic science knowledge that is better retained, retrieved, and later used in the clinical context (Barrows 1985, p. 5).
Barrows designed a series of problems that went beyond conventional case studies. He didn't give students all the information but required them to research a situation, develop appropriate questions, and produce their own plan to solve the problem. This cultivated students' “clinical reasoning process” as well as their understanding of the tools at their disposal. He found that PBL also developed students' abilities to extend and improve their knowledge to keep up in the ever-expanding field of medicine and to learn how to provide care for new illnesses they encountered. Students who were taught through PBL became “self-directed learners” with the desire to know and learn, the ability to formulate their needs as learners, and the ability to select and use the best available resources to satisfy these needs. Barrows and Tamblyn defined this new method, problem-based learning, as “the learning that results from the process of working toward the understanding or resolution of a problem” (Barrows and Tamblyn 1980, p. 18). They summarized the process as follows:
The problem is encountered first in the learning sequence, before any preparation or study has occurred.
The problem situation is presented to the student in the same way it would present in reality.
The student works with the problem in a manner that permits his ability to reason and apply knowledge to be challenged and evaluated, appropriate to his level of learning.
Needed areas of learning are identified in the process of work with the problem and used as a guide to individualized study.
The skills and knowledge acquired by this study are applied back to the problem, to evaluate the effectiveness of learning and to reinforce learning.
The learning that has occurred in work with the problem and in individualized study is summarized and integrated into the student's existing knowledge and skills (Barrows and Tamblyn 1980, pp. 191–192).
Although the PBL method outlined in the preceding section originally was designed for medical schools, it has been adopted by a growing number of K-12 schools working to raise student achievement. Students educated for the world of the 21st century must develop habits of thinking, researching, and problem solving to succeed in a rapidly changing world. Yet, too many children in traditional education are not developing these increasingly vital abilities.
Thinking and problem-solving skills are not explicitly measured on a national basis. But studies show that while students are making progress in learning basic skills, only a small percentage perform at desired grade levels and master higher-order thinking.
For example, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test, 57 percent of 17-year-olds scored below the level necessary to “find, understand, summarize, and explain relatively complicated literary and informational material” (National Center for Education Statistics 1996, p. 114). Only 10 percent of students scored in the top two levels (proficient and advanced) on the NAEP history test. And while more than half of 17-year-olds (59 percent) could answer “moderately complex procedures and reasoning,” only 7 in 100 showed a mastery of “multi-step problem solving and algebra” (National Center for Education Statistics 1996, p. 122). In science, less than half (47 percent) could “analyze scientific procedures and data,” with only 10 percent able to “integrate specialized scientific information” (National Center for Education Statistics 1996, p. 126). Clearly, while students are taught the basics, they are unable to proceed to understanding and using advanced knowledge.
Problem-based learning fits right into the movement for higher standards and greater achievement. PBL asks students to demonstrate an understanding of the material, not just to parrot back information with a few word changes. Research and teachers' experience have demonstrated that active instructional techniques like PBL can motivate bored students and raise their understanding and achievement. These student-centered strategies build critical thinking and reasoning skills, further students' creativity and independence, and help students earn a sense of ownership over their own work.
In classrooms where educators employ active learning strategies, students talk to each other, not through the teacher, and they initiate and manage many of their own activities. In these classes, the teacher serves as a guide to learning, providing room for students to increase their independence and build their own creativity. The teachers rely less on textbooks, using them as only one of a number of valid information sources that include everything from the Internet to community members. Similarly, schools using active learning become more flexible, allowing teachers greater freedom to direct their students and structure their own courses. They recognize that helping students master information needed to solve a problem and building their analytical reasoning skills are at least as important as memorizing a predetermined answer.
Since Barrows first used PBL at McMaster University in the mid-1960s, PBL “has caused a small revolution in the medical community” (Albanese and Mitchell 1993), and it was cited by a U.S. News and World Report issue reviewing medical schools:
Since the late 1970s, New Mexico has been a pioneer in reforming medical education and training. . . . It was the first U.S. medical school to embrace a curriculum built around a case study method—the problem-based approach adopted six years later by Harvard (Sarnoff 1996, pp. 92–94).
PBL is presently used in more than 60 medical schools worldwide and also in schools of dentistry, pharmacy, optometry, and nursing. It is also used in high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools in cities, suburban counties, and rural communities. Teachers have been trained at the Problem-Based Learning Institute in Springfield, Illinois; the Center for Problem-Based Learning at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Chicago; and the Center for the Study of Problem-Based Learning at Ventures In Education in New York City.
PBL offers K-12 teachers a structured method to help their students build thinking and problem-solving skills while students master important subject knowledge. It empowers students with greater freedom while providing a process that teachers can use to guide and lead students. Most of all, PBL transfers the active role in the classroom to students through problems that connect to their lives and procedures that require them to find needed information, think through a situation, solve the problem, and develop a final presentation.
At this point, you may wish to look at one of the “practical” chapters (Chapters 7 to 11) before proceeding. Reading through some actual PBL problems may help you understand the background information in Chapters 2 to 6.
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