PBL Teaches Children to Be Learners

Dear Dr. Sylvia:

Q. What are the benefits and pitfalls of Problem Based Learning (PBL)? Our school is in the very beginning phase of changing to PBL. Do you know any research sources?

A. Problem Based Learning (PBL) began in universities and medical schools where it has been researched, at those levels, as being extremely effective for student learning. It provides students with challenging and open ended real life problems and gives the students the responsibility for organizing, initiating and directing their own learning experiences. Students take turns in leading small groups, gathering resources, discussing differences in interpretation and evaluating their experiences. They also debate and discuss possible solutions to the problems. Teachers facilitate the learning by only occasionally asking questions requesting clarifications and suggesting additional resources that could be helpful. Teachers also observe and evaluate student participation.

At the medical school level, case studies are introduced and students must research the potential causes and treatments for the case as they will have to do in the real world of medical practice. Students report enjoying PBL much more than they have the typical lecture approach, although as part of PBL there can also be lectures that provide technical information which argument the discussion process. The students integrate the information from many resources to describe solutions for the patient case.

Many school districts are now encouraging teachers at the upper elementary, middle and high school level to incorporate PBL into the learning process. In the classroom, there might be four or five small groups, each working on the same problem and eventually sharing their solutions with the rest of the class. Science and social studies classes are more likely to include PBL than are math or language classes. For example, a government class could learn a great deal about their local government by trying to solve a problem within their community such as "How can the community prevent traffic accidents at a busy corner where there have recently been several accidents?Ē Students would have to research traffic patterns to verify that the problem exists, determine the legal issues involved, identify who controls these laws and how law related to traffic in a community are changed. There is little doubt that students would not agree on the same solution, so in addition to identifying possible solutions, students learn to listen to each other, debate and compromise. Reports would likely have to be written either together as a group or individually, so the written aspects of learning are not neglected. In some cases, students might prepare PowerPoint presentations to present to a public audience about the need for changes in the law.

Schools donít usually adopt PBL as their entire curriculum, but only utilize it in some subjects and as part of learning process. Students seem to enjoy it and research findings have been continuously positive. Searching the Internet can provide you with significant research evidence. As to the pitfalls, I've not seen those yet, but I'm sure there are some. Most crucial will be that since children seem to enjoy taking responsibility for their own learning, they may be more disappointed to have to return toward the more routine and boring kind of learning that is still required for many basic subjects.