Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is many things….
by Søren Willert, Professor Emeritus, Aalborg University
Some years ago I participated in a PBL-oriented Conference at Singapore Polytechnic. They are just as much a PBL-University (in the technical, Natural Science field including engineering) as Aalborg University. Historically speaking they do a version of (what I understand as) the original PBL format: Students are continually given problems that have fixed and correct answers. Students’ study process (towards finding the right answer) is carefully facilitated by teachers according to a standardized schedule. Their approach is called ‘One day – One problem’. By working themselves through the study program’s entire problem catalogue, students are helped, so to speak, to construct their own textbooks. Instead of passively reading, and having to remember, ready-made textbook material.
When visiting Singapore Polytechnic, I found them very efficient course managers. As former conference participant I’m still on their mailing list. From time to time I receive PR material from them: course announcements++. If you are interested in getting on that mailing list, please consult https://www.tp.edu.sg/centres/learning-academy/pbl.
Below you find extracts from a lecture I once made on teaching style differences between the original PBL format (including the Singapore variety) and the Aalborg University PBL format. The PBL style applied in the ENGINITE Project may be seen as blend between the two varieties.
A: What is PBL? – (I) The original variety
- -PBL was pioneered in the medical school program at McMaster University in Hamilton , Ontario, Canada in the late 1960s by Harold Barrows and his colleagues
- -Important stimulus for inventing PBL was students’ complaints concerning the study program’s amount of fatiguing, de-motivating rote learning
- -Barrows defines the Problem-Based Learning Model as: Student Centered Learning
- -Learning is done in Small Student Groups, ideally 6-10 people
- -Facilitators or Tutors guide the students rather than teach
- -A Problem forms the basis for the organized focus of the group, and stimulates learning
- -The problem is a vehicle for the development of problem solving skills. It stimulates the cognitive process.
- -New knowledge is obtained through Self-Directed Learning (SDL).
B: What is PBL? – (II) The original variety
According to the original variety the teaching-learning process goes like this
- -Learners are presented with a problem and through discussion within their group, activate their prior knowledge.
- -Within their group, they develop possible theories or hypotheses to explain the problem. Together they identify learning issues to be researched. They construct a shared primary model to explain the problem at hand. Facilitators provide scaffold, which is a frame work on which students can construct knowledge relating to the problem.
- -After the initial team work, students work independently in self directed study to research the identified issues.
- -The students re-group to discuss their findings and refine their initial explanations based on what they learned
C: What is PBL? –The Aalborg variety
Value-based pedagogical platform
- -Emphasizes learning instead of traditional teaching and lecturing
- -Learning is an active process of investigation and creation, driven by the student’s curiosity and experiences
- -The students are inspired to participate in the discovery of problems and the creation of new knowledge (in relation to future work situations)
- -The students are expected to learn to think critically and analytically
Operational principles and goals
- -Problem Guided Learning based on theoretical as well as real-life problems,
- -Problems are defined by students: personally – and professionally – motivated problem solving
- -The principle of exemplarity – rather than representativity: depth of learning in favour of breadth of learning
- -The students learn to do research
Project Organisation as imitation of ‘normal’ everyday life and work situations:
- ”..the way in which learning took place before the event of class room and curricula” (Boud and Felettti, 1991)
Project work is supported by lecture courses
D: The two PBL varieties compared (I)
- -Both varieties make use of the term PBL – the difference between them is signaled by describing the Aalborg variety as Problem- and Project-Based Learning
- -Both varieties emerged as counter-movements to the prevailing so-called scholastic teaching-learning paradigm; cf. Freire: ‘Banking Concept’ or (in Denmark) ‘petrol station attendant pedagogy’.
- -Original PBL (from Wikipedia): “Traditional medical education disenchanted students, who perceived the vast amount of material presented in the first three years of medical school as having little relevance to the practice of medicine and clinically based medicine.”
- -The Aalborg variety arose in Denmark as an offshoot of the anti-authoritarian youth revolt in the seventies. Its political flavor has since been much subdued. Still, AAU students are in principle given much intellectual autonomy
E: The two PBL varieties compared (II)
The difference between the two PBL varieties may be conceptualized through Donald A. Schön’s distinction between two training paradigms
- Follow Me – dominates ’the original variety’:
- -Obligatory educational targets and success criteria are defined by teacher/ institutional framework.
- -PBL is chosen as the supposedly most effective teaching-learning method to guide the student towards reaching the institutionally defined learning targets.
- -PBL as instrumental means towards an end defined as professionally adequate knowledge acquisition
- Joint Experimentation – is relatively more dominant in the Aalborg variety:
- -Within an existing professional-conceptual frame of reference, students are invited to carve out their own exploration path.
- -Teacher must in a professionally empathetic manner be capable of resonating with the students’ learning quest (‘Follow the Student’), and to some extent accept to share with the students an ignorance as to where that quest may ultimately lead.
- -PBL as value-based means towards an end defined as the shaping of personally and professionally innovative citizens skilled in teamwork
F: The two PBL varieties compared (III)
- -Schön names one third training paradigm Hall of Mirrors. It refers to the mutual negotiations having to take place between trainer and trainee (teacher and student(s)) in order for their relationship to become transparent, and thus learning-enhancing.
- -Comparatively speaking, of the two above-described teaching-learning paradigms, the Aalborg variety requires a higher degree of teacher skills as far as Hall of Mirrors is concerned.
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