I was initially drawn to the Problem-Based Learning approach because of its child-centered philosophy and its emphasis on student initiative, choice, collaboration, and other critical “21st Century Skills” that I mentioned in last week’s post. As a teacher who focuses on educating the whole child, I was excited to discover that PBL offers an ideal way for my students to learn not only academic content but also strong work habits and valuable interpersonal skills.
One of the most appealing features of Problem-Based Learning is that children become the primary driving forces in their learning. In this role students make meaningful decisions about how they will learn, organize their work, and present that work to a larger audience. As teachers, our focus shifts to one of coaching, facilitating, and guiding.
A typical PBL unit begins with either a question, challenge, or problem statement. Often, this introduction presents an interesting context or situation, puts the children in a specific role, and calls for them to solve a problem by inventing something. The key to writing an effective problem statement is ensuring that the engaging context or situation we create addresses the essential skills and standards that we want the kids to learn during the unit. Unfortunately, during some project-based approaches, the emphasis is on making something attractive, cool, and attention-getting, and the content-area learning can take a back seat.
When the problem statement is presented to the class on the first day of a unit, the kids are tasked with making sense of the challenge at hand, organizing themselves into groups, creating action plans, and following through with those plans until the project is complete. This process usually takes a few weeks.
In my next post, you will see a sample problem statement, and I will describe how my students proceeded step-by-step from the beginning of this project to the end.
After a few years of reading about and tinkering with Problem-Based Learning, I fully implemented this instructional approach in my classroom this fall, and PBL has been an absolute game changer. As educators teaching in the Common Core era, we hear quite a bit about the need to help children develop “21st Century Skills" focusing on such areas as communication, collaboration, technology, and problem solving, and I have found that nothing comes close to PBL in this regard.
Plus, the level of enthusiasm and engagement students display while working on their projects is simply incredible. During a PBL session, the hardest part of my job sometimes is getting everyone to stop at the end of the period. On many occasions, the kids were so invested in what they were doing that I actually began to worry a little about my safety as I headed to the front of the room to signal that our time had run out.
In this blog series I will be describing my experiences with Problem-Based Learning, explaining its benefits, and sharing tips and lessons I have learned along the way about implementation, grouping, assessment, and exhibiting student work. Children at every elementary age can gain mightily from this approach, and I look forward to relaying my experiences and hearing your feedback.