I dove into Problem Based Learning this week. As an administrator sometimes I feel like I am constantly solving problems–lots of people come to me with their problems on a daily basis. I love Problem Based Learning (PBL) and when I was a teacher I did lots of it, but in a new role I am looking at it from a different point of view.
I read lots of articles on PBL, but this report (albeit a bit old) hit all the important parts and gave a good summary of what it is, “Project-based learning is a form of situated learning (Greeno, this volume) and it is based on the constructivist finding that students gain a deeper understanding of material when they actively construct their understanding by working with and using ideas. In project-based learning, students engage in real, meaningful problems that are important to them and that are similar to what scientists, mathematicians, writers, and historians do. A project-based classroom allows students to investigate questions, propose hypotheses and explanations, discuss their ideas, challenge the ideas of others, and try out new ideas. Research has demonstrated that students in project-based learning classrooms get higher scores than students in traditional classrooms (Marx et al., 2004; Rivet & Krajcik, 2004; William & Linn, 2003).”
As I read I kept nodding my head as I read obvious statements such as, “In the 1980s and 1990s, education researchers increasingly realized that when students are bored and unengaged, they are less likely to learn (Blumenfeld et al., 1991)” or when the authors stated that students are learning at superficial levels and rarely get to the conceptual levels. I became frustrated because once again in education we know what we are doing isn’t working and we aren’t changing.
The article went on to say that a PBL environment had the following things:
- They start with a driving question, a problem to be solved.
- Students explore the driving question by participating in authentic, situated inquiry – processes of problem solving that are central to expert performance in the discipline. As students explore the driving question, they learn and apply important ideas in the discipline.
- Students, teachers, and community members engage in collaborative activities to find solutions to the driving question. This mirrors the complex social situation of expert problem solving.
- While engaged in the inquiry process, students are scaffolding with learning technologies that help them participate in activities normally beyond their ability.
- Students create a set of tangible products that address the driving question. These are shared artifacts, publicly accessible external representations of the class’s learning.
Dewey argued that students would have more personal investment in authentic tasks that emulate what experts do in the real world do, however I would argue if they are authentic meaningful problems that are student created from what they face in their everyday lives.
Another two things the article mentions is that students learn social interaction with others and learning how to collaborate through PBL. In my past experience I would say this is one of the biggest takeaways for students. Upon their reflections they learn more about themselves as learners, but also as part of a group. It’s almost like the content and concepts seep in naturally without them noticing, but the experiences with others sticks out and is brought to the awareness level.
Now, how does this impact me and my practice? Rewind to a few months ago Lee Crockett came to my school and spoke on the 21st century literacies, with a particular focus on Solutions and Media fluencies. Our teachers’ minds were blown. Fast forward to this week of COETAIL and my mind kept going back to how I could help teachers being PBL in their classrooms. The link connected and I realized that I could do a couple of things tying back to Lee’s workshops.
The easiest thing to do would be to do a book study of his book and have teachers start looking for PBL connections and ties into their curriculum. This being the end of the year is actually a good time to review the curriculum, and maybe I could get some eager teachers in a virtual book club over the summer. If not, I think it would be a great idea to have it begin next school year and continue during our monthly staff meetings.
The other idea I had was to actually do PBL with my teachers. As I said before, teachers come in with lots of problems that are important to them. What if, I harnessed their desire for solutions and we spent a day (we have a week of PD at the end of the year) and gave teachers the opportunity to collaborate and solve their own problems. My vision is to have a big problem dump session where teachers can identify problems they have or we have as a school. Then teachers can select the one they want to work on in a group and they get down to it. The benefits are twofold–teachers are experiencing PBL first hand and problems are getting solved! It is empowering and productive, two of my favorite things.