Problem-Based Learning and Me
This is surely a troublesome time for parents who are trying to fill the role of teacher. After all, teaching is a profession and requires special training and skills, which most people don’t have. Sometimes the best parents can do is simply to “tell” their kids what they need to know. But teaching is much more than “telling.” Students need to know how to use knowledge in practical ways and they learn best when they are able to use what they are learning in some activity that is interesting and engaging. Enter Problem-Based Learning, an active learning strategy and one of the most powerful of all teaching and learning tools. In order to use this exciting tool, we need to know a little more about it. We also need to know how to use it. This article will help with those two things.
What is Problem-Based Learning?
Problem-Based Learning, often referred to simply as “PBL,” is both a teaching method and a learning method. As a teaching method, it is a way to organize learning into projects that address actual problems that are observed in life outside of school. As a learning method it involves thinking our way through a problem that happens in daily life. PBL is very different from traditional teaching. Most traditional teaching begins with subject matter. In the traditional method, we would teach a concept or skill and then expect our students to figure out why that concept or skill matters. With PBL, we begin with the “why” of it all. We do that by choosing a problem scenario from life, one that gets the attention of the student and helps them to see that they need to learn the concepts or skills associated with the subject matter.
The PBL Method is composed of the following eight elements:
- Learning Objectives – what we want students to know and be able to do
- Problem – an issue, drawn from life, that will require students to use the subject matter content in order to solve it
- Resources – materials needed for students to research the problem
- Time –how long we want to spend on each topic, and how to organize learning.
- The Story – The problem, presented in an engaging form, usually a narrative including an introduction and short “scenes”
- Guiding Questions – questions we use to help our students learn “how to learn”
- Products – those things that demonstrate that students have mastered the Learning Objectives.
- Assessments – methods of checking to see if our students are learning
How can I use the PBL Method at home?
The list above is a good guide for how to use the PBL Method. Below are some examples of the PBL Method in action in a science setting.
The best place to start is with the Learning Objectives. What do we want our students to know and be able to do? Where do we get this information? The school goes by “standards” for each subject area. The standards represent the Learning Objectives for the subject in general. The school may share those standards with parents. Another good place to get the standards is from the Tennessee Department of Education’s website. The Learning Objectives are built on these standards and give us a target for learning. One example is as follows:
Standard: 6.ESS2: Earth’s Systems (This is a sixth grade Science standard)
- Analyze and interpret data from weather conditions, weather maps, satellites, and radar to predict probable local weather patterns and conditions.
- Explain how relationships between the movement and interactions of air masses, high and low pressure systems, and frontal boundaries result in weather conditions and severe storms.
We want students to know information, be able to apply knowledge to life situations, to analyze their actions, to evaluate their solutions and to appreciate the fact that their learning is relevant to their lives.
Once we know what we are teaching, we look around us for examples of how the knowledge and skills are used in our lives. We choose a Problem that represents the Learning Objectives. A good question to ask ourselves is “How are these skills and knowledge used in real life?” The answer to that question will help to identify a problem. For example, severe weather is a real problem in our area. A PBL Event, titled “When the Wind Blows” features a sixth grader who experiences a tornado with her mom and pet dog. She survives, but it leaves her with many questions as to what happened, and why.
Once the Problem is identified, we gather some Resources for our students to use as they research the problem for themselves. In this phase we are creating a space that they will explore. If we choose Resources wisely, we will be able to gently “guide” the learning toward the Learning Objectives. This takes some practice, but the key is to “let it happen.” Some Resources for “When the Wind Blows” include website links to NOAA, the Weather Channel, the National Weather Service, local news sites, the Office of Emergency Management, and others.
Learning activities can be good Resources. Interviews with scientists via Zoom would be interesting, or virtual tours of offices and weather services. Be creative. See if you can recruit some experts to agree to answer questions via email. Have students take notes and let them present their learning by creating a written or video report explaining what they’ve learned so far. These research briefs will let you know if your students are on track to achieve the Learning Objectives.
Time is another form of Resource. You must decide how long you will spend on this lesson. The PBL Method lets you adjust your time needed based on the Learning Objectives. If you have several Objectives to meet, then you’ll need more time. A typical PBL Event takes about two weeks but may take more or less time than that.
Present the problem in an engaging manner, whether it is verbally, by video, or in written form. It is helpful to have a written copy, or a video, so that students can refer back to it for “clues” that will help them to clarify their choices. In “When the Wind Blows” students are given a series of short written scenes describing the day that the storm struck. The story is vivid, exciting, and scary. It’s real!
Think about some open-ended Guiding Questions that will help students stay on track. These questions should help them to think about their problem-solving skills. Here are some examples:
- “What are some facts that you know?
- “What would you like to know?”
- “Have you checked all of the resources yet?”
- “Who would know the answers to your questions?”
- “Where did you get your information?”
- “How would you know if that is a reliable source?”
It is important not to tell your students too much. Don’t be the source of information. Let them figure out the problem and how to get answers from the experts. That’s how they learn to research and to think their way through new situations.
Choose real-life Products for your project. This requires some preparation in advance of the lesson. Look for the types of reports or products that scientists or other professionals use in their practice. In “When the Wind Blows” students form a “weather team” simulating those on local news channels. Students present a weather report that is based on accurate data. In order to create the report, they must be able to gather information about storms and correctly interpret the data. They get to practice their presentation skills, as well, which is one of the side benefits of the PBL approach.
Assessments take many forms. First, in the example above, you can see that Research Briefs are one way of checking to see if your students are on track. This is what we call a “formative assessment,” which means that it is a way of checking “along the way” but is not representative of final learning. “Summative assessments” occur at the end and are meant to show how well students measure up to the Learning Objectives. With PBL, summative assessments usually take the form of Product presentations. As mentioned above, you can have your students make a video weather report. Another example of a summative assessment is a presentation made to the “panel” of experts that you recruited. Or, you can simply have your students create a weather chart, write the script of a weather report, make the video and finish with a reflective essay about what they learned. Whatever you choose must represent the Learning Objectives that you chose at the beginning of your lesson. Ask yourself how well your students performed on the objective. This will help you determine what you need to clarify with them. One of the strengths of PBL is that the presentations at the end can be both summative and formative, because after the presentation there can be a discussion of what your students learned and what they might have missed.
All in all, the PBL Method is a powerful approach to teaching, one that ties learning to life in ways that bring meaning to the learning. With a little creativity, thought, and preparation, it is possible to make learning interesting even in these uncertain times!
Problem-Based Learning in k-8 Classrooms by Ann Lambros, Corwin Press (2002).
Problem-Based Learning in Middle and High School Classrooms by Ann Lambros, Corwin Press (2005).