Problem-based Learning

On the first day of school, I show my students the classroom scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In it, Ben Stein, speaking in an unwavering monotone, “teaches” an economics lesson to a class of bored students. More like a monologue than a lesson, Stein pauses intermittently to ask and answer his own questions, the “Anyone? Anyone?” becoming a refrain, the perfect punctuation mark to his students’ silence. My class usually begins laughing when the first student is shown, a girl wearing a letterman jacket and an expression somewhere between terror and boredom. The comedy comes from a subtle recognition of ourselves in the bored students; who hasn’t sat in a classroom and stared at the clock, counting down the minutes until freedom? At the end of the scene, I reassure students that our class will never be like that; they’ll all take ownership of their learning, find meaning in the curriculum, and work collaboratively to answer compelling questions. And yet, despite my best intentions, at some point in the year I’ll look around the class, see my own movie montage of bored students and feel like a failure. But are we being too hard on ourselves? Are a few bored kids just a necessary part of the system, or is there a way to make learning engaging and meaningful for even the most reluctant students?

Educators have been trying to answer this question for hundreds of years. In the early 20th century, John Dewey urged educators to move away from rote learning and memorization and towards a dynamic model that valued experience above all else. Learning not grounded in real-world experience, said Dewey, was soon lost, and worse, antithetical to the mission of education. “Almost everyone has had occasion to look back upon his school days and wonder what has become of the knowledge he was supposed to have amassed during his years of schooling,” Dewey wrote. “But it was segregated when it was acquired and hence is so disconnected from the rest of experience that it is not available under the actual conditions of life.” More importantly, asked Dewey, what is the purpose of education “if in the process the individual loses his own soul”? To counteract the negative effects of this soul-crushing institution, Dewey suggested teachers use a student’s “present experience” as a source of problems “to be overcome by the exercise of intelligence.” Not only would this make learning more meaningful for students, it would lead the learner on “an active quest for information and for production of new ideas” (Experience and Education, 1938).

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Maria Montessori created her own model of education based on self-discovery. The first Montessori school opened in Italy in 1907 and by 1911 had spread to the United States. Montessori schools are built around the idea that children learn best when they’re allowed to follow their own natural curiosity. In a Montessori classroom, “The child, through individual choice, makes use of what the environment offers to develop himself, interacting with the teacher when support and/or guidance is needed” (American Montessori Society). Students work collaboratively with peers of all ages, giving older students the chance to master and reinforce content and concepts through teaching, and younger students the chance to benefit from the expertise of their older classmates.

The success of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin has put Montessori schools back in the headlines. In a 2004 interview with Barbara Walters, Larry Page credited his Montessori education with giving him the tools to think outside the box. “We both went to Montessori school, and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, and doing things a little bit differently, that contributed to our success,” Page said. Could that the cure-all for the dreaded “Anyone? Anyone?” classroom—simply allow students a choice in what they study and how they study it?

In the late 1960s, American medical schools followed a similar path and sought alternative ways to engage students beyond the simple memorization of facts. Howard S. Barrows, a pioneer of what would become known as Problem-Based Learning, called the practice of testing students on how much information they remembered at the end of a course “educational malpractice” (Problem-Based Learning: An Approach to Medical Education, 1980). “Many studies have shown that the students will forget most of what you have asked them to memorize and will not be able to apply what they can recall in practice,” Barrows wrote. His solution: reverse the educational paradigm by starting with a problem first and then having students discover the facts on their own or in small groups. This process, according to Barrrows, would not only allow students to acquire the necessary content knowledge, it would also improve their problem-solving ability and clinical skills. The bottom line for Barrows and other PBL proponents is that we learn best when content is connected to real-world application.

But is self-discovery always the best way to learn essential information? In a 2006 article entitled “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work,” researchers refuted the claims of PBL enthusiasts, arguing that their approach simply didn’t match the science of “human cognitive architecture.” Starting with the assumption that “the aim of all instruction is to alter long term memory,” the article set out to prove that PBL just doesn’t work. According to the article, because of the limitations on our working memory, Problem-based Learning is merely an intellectual exercise with no long-term results: “All problem based searching makes heavy demands on working memory. Furthermore, that working memory load does not contribute to the accumulation of knowledge in long-term memory because while working memory is being used to search for problem solutions, it is not available and cannot be used to learn.”

If, as the authors contend, there is no research that supports the benefits of Problem-based Learning, why do educational reformers keep insisting on an inquiry based approach? In a meta-analysis published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, researchers attempted to settle the question once and for all (“When is PBL More Effective? A Meta-synthesis of Meta-analyses Comparing PBL to Conventional Classrooms,”2009). Ultimately, they concluded that the controversy stems from how we define and measure learning. Standardized tests based on short-term recall and retention favored traditional instruction, while tests requiring elaboration beyond multiple-choice favored the PBL approach. Evaluations more qualitative in nature—for example, monitoring the way a doctor interacts with a patient—overwhelmingly favored PBL. Importantly, students who had learned through a PBL approach experienced more satisfaction than their peers who had learned in more traditional settings—a useful piece of information for any teacher looking to engage reluctant students.

The debate seems to hinge on a simple metaphor: when building a house, do you have to construct the foundation first or can you decide the order as you go? The answer seems obvious—although I can’t say from first-hand experience—but also shows how the way we think about education may be out of date. While no one can deny the importance of building the necessary cognitive structures to retain and manipulate information, one can make a compelling argument about the necessity of tailoring education to the individual; to let them build their house however they see fit, allowing them to make mistakes and missteps based on their own design. After all, metaphorically speaking, they’re the ones who will eventually have to live in it. And who’s to say what a proper house should look like anyway?

In 2013, Wired ran an article entitled “How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses” about what education may look like in the future. In it, author Joshua Davis argues that our education system hasn’t changed since the Industrial Revolution, a time when order, regimentation, and structure were necessary to succeed in the workplace. But our world has changed, and now other skills are necessary to excel in the global marketplace. “Innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy,” Davis notes.

To prove his point, he uses the example of Jaurez Correa, a teacher in Mexico who became disillusioned with the educational opportunities his school was providing for students. Scouring the Internet, Correa stumbled upon the work of Sugata Mitra, an Indian scientist attempting to revolutionize education with a fresh new approach. It all began with a simple experiment: Mitra was curious to see how students from a nearby slum would react to a computer. He gave no instructions; he simply turned on the computer and stepped away. “To his surprise,” writes Davis, “the children quickly figured out how to use the machine.” A series of experiments would follow using the same pedagogical technique (though subsequently he’s provided more structure, such as a specific content area or question for students to explore). Now in the process of building seven schools with a grant from TED, Mitra’s designs feature glass walls, students free to pursue and research topics that interest them, and in a nod to science-fiction, two life size screens of teachers encouraging students in their investigations, only one click away from being turned off.

Correa would continue experimenting with Mitra’s ideas, posing compelling problems, and then stepping away. Not only did Correa’s standardized test scores dramatically improve, one of his students earned the highest score in all of Mexico. When asked why she hadn’t displayed the same amount of interest in school in the past, the student replied, “Because no one made it this interesting.”

Depending on what statistic you look at, our education system is either on the verge of collapse, falling apart at the seams, or doing the best a democracy as large as ours can be. The truth, however, might depend solely on the student you are talking to. The doomsayers seem to ignore that school works just fine for a lot of kids. The ones in between—the students blowing bubbles, drooling on their desks, or going home to work out complex math equations—will benefit from alternative models of learning based on self-discovery. Although my knowledge of Latin is non-existent, a simple search for the etymology of the word “educate” is telling:

Educate (v.) mid-15c.,”bring up (children), train,” from Latin educatus, past participle of educare “bring up, rear, educate,” which is related to educere “bring out, lead forth” (Online Etymology Dictionary)

As we seek to educate our students, we’re also helping them “bring forth” their own passions and interests—a goal all teachers can agree on, regardless of your beliefs about what exactly constitutes learning. While the different approaches to education seem unable to compromise, we luckily don’t have to pick one or other; teachers are already incorporating a PBL approach to learning in their classrooms, strengthening and refining their own strategies that have worked for years. Still, for some students, it may not be enough. By giving students a choice in a school already as rich as GHS we’ll be able to have the best of both worlds; a place where a variety of methods exist side-by-side, intermingling with one another, allowing students to engage in the process of discovery in whatever way works best for them.

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1 Response to Problem-based Learning

  1. Pingback: Weekly Wrap-up (7.18.14) | A New School at Greenwich High School

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