Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Problem with Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning (PBL)   is all about giving students ownership of their learning asking them to solve open-ended, real-life problems. This helps them develop flexible knowledge, self-directed learning, and - since students often work in groups - collaborative skills.  When done effectively, it is engaging and transferable on a level that will extend beyond any given classroom.

But I have a fundamental problem with problem-based learning. It is focused on the wrong thing: Problems. Ultimately, by analyzing a problem, our focus should be on finding solutions. In my mind, it would have more appeal and focus in a more appropriate direction if it were called Solution-Based Learning (SBL). This simple change in terminology shifts the mind into a positive, can-do direction. Who besides myself has a mental shutdown that started in 4th grade with the phrase, "story problem"? From math problems to world problems, my reflex is to shut down.   But start talking to me about finding solutions, and you have engaged me.

In teaching, language matters.  Using phrases like "you can" instead of "you should" can set the tone for success.  When framing your questions, responding to confusion, reacting to doubt; the language you use can make the learning accessible and engaging....or less so.  One teacher recently told me that she always uses the phrase "you will" with her nursing students, so that they can envision themselves working as nurses later while they are in the classroom.

Who wants to sign up for more problems?  I want to participate in a class that offers solution-based learning.  Let's turn the tables and flip the focus; Solution-based learning puts the focus where it should be: on finding solutions.  I offer SBL as our official new terminology as we move forward in developing and exploring this practice.
Students at RTC work to build Tiny Houses for the Homeless. Example of hands-on,  Solution-Based Learning. 

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