We have all heard young children repeatedly ask their mothers "why" questions. "Why is spaghetti sauce red?" "Why do bunnies have fur?" or "Why is Grandma's skin wrinkled?" It seems natural and healthy for children to ask questions. So what happens to that inquisitiveness between the ages of two and twelve? By the time children are in middle school it seems as if learning is torture. Teachers continually ask themselves and their colleagues, "How can I make learning more interesting for my students?" One option for teachers is problem-based learning.

What Is Problem-Based Learning?
Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is an instructional strategy that bases learning around a real-world problem rather than on a particular discipline. The strategy came about in the early 1970s in medical schools and has proven to be so effective that is has made its way into K-12 instruction.

The idea is to teach students to learn how to learn. By having to solve problems, students practice learning rather than merely memorizing. Amazingly enough, the students are not only introduced to facts while solving the problem, but they remember them because the facts are no longer a collection of random information--rather they are meaningful and relevant to solving actual problems. Students learn to apply new information to solve problems.

How Does PBL Work?
To begin, the students are given an ill-structured problem. An ill structured  problem is a clearly defined problem that has just enough information to provoke an investigation. The students should not have enough prior knowledge to solve the problem on their own. This problem should have more than one "correct" answer as the answer will most likely change as more information is found.

Furthermore, it is important that the problem be meaningful to the students. They should be able to relate to the issue at hand. When students ??? to the issue, they will be more compelled to solve the problem and more likely to retain the information they find.

Students should then discuss the problem and record all their prior knowledge. Based on what the students already know, each group or individual can make a hypothesis or working statement, which is likely to change as more information is deducted through research. Next, students will brain storm a list of questions that need to be answered in order to solve the problem.

Students will use resources (e.g., Internet, encyclopedias, periodicals, experts, etc. . .) to answer these questions. It is most desirable for the teacher to have already decided on what resources the students will use. This way the teacher can notify the school library and/or gather resources in the classroom that will aid in the students' discovery. This approach also saves students from searching through useless materials.

This simple chart can help students keep their objectives in order.

 What do I know?

 What do I need to know?

 How will I find it?

What Is the Teacher's Role in PBL?
In a Problem-Based Learning scenario the teacher's traditional role changes, and some teachers may need some time to adjust. No longer is the teacher and text the source of all knowledge in the classroom. The role of the teacher in a PBL classroom is as a coach or guide.

The teacher should not expect students to be effective problem solvers right away. Since learning to solve problems is one of the main goals of PBL, students will need to be guided during the searching and solving process. By asking questions along with the students, a teacher can serve as a model problem solver. As students get better at problem solving, the teacher's involvement may change slightly.

However, there is a fine line between guiding and modeling and being overly involved. If the teacher guides all the students in the same direction, the students will assume there is only one correct answer and will most likely try to figure out what answer the teacher wants. Also, the students will not take ownership of the problem if the teacher does the work for them. Therefore, it is important that the teacher allows students to question things differently.

For More information on Problem-Based Learning, check out these sites.

Problem Based Learning: An Introduction
There must be something compellingly effective about problem-based learning, given the level of faculty interest in it all through higher education. After all, no one thinks it's easier or takes less time.

UD PBL: Problem-Based Learning
University of Delaware - Problem-Based Learning, Recipient of 1999 Hesburgh Certificate of Excellence

Center for Problem-Based Learning Core
The CPBL web site is organized into four main sections: "What is the CPBL?," "What is PBL?," "Who is working with PBL?," and "What are we learning about PBL?."

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