What is Problem-Based Learning
Problem-based learning (PBL) challenges students to identify and examine real problems, then work together to address and solve those problems through advocacy and by mobilizing resources. Importantly, every aspect of the problem solving process involves students in real work—work that is a reflection of the range of expertise required to solve issues in the world outside of school.
While problem-based learning can use any type of problem as its basis, the approach described here is deliberately focused on local ones. Local problems allow students to have a meaningful voice, and be instrumental in a process where real, recognizable change results. It also gives students opportunities to source and interact with a variety of local experts.
Problem-Based Learning & the Classroom
In many classrooms teachers give students information and then ask them to solve problems at the culmination of a unit. Problem-based learning turns this on its head by challenging students to define the problem before finding the resources necessary to address or solve it. In this approach, teachers are facilitators: they set the context for the problem, ask questions to propel students’ interests and learning forward, help students locate necessary resources and experts, and provide multiple opportunities to critique students’ process and progress. In some cases, the teacher may identify a problem that is connected to existing curriculum; in others the teacher may assign a larger topic and challenge the students to identify a specific problem they are interested in addressing.
This approach is interdisciplinary and provides natural opportunities for integrating a variety of required content areas. Because recognizing and making relationships between content areas is a necessary part of the problem-solving process—as it is in the real world—students are building skills to prepare them for life, work, and civic participation. Problem-based learning gives students a variety of ways to address and tackle a problem. It encourages everyone to contribute and rewards different kinds of success. This builds confidence in students who have not always been successful in school. With the changing needs of today’s world, there is a growing urgency for people who are competent in a range of areas including the ability to apply critical thinking to complex problems, collaborate, network and gather resources, and communicate and persuade others to actively take up a cause.
Problem-based learning builds agency & independence
Although students work collaboratively throughout the process, applying a wide range of skills to new tasks requires them to develop their own specialties that lead to greater confidence and competency. And because the process is student-driven, students are challenged to define the problem, conduct comprehensive research, sort through multiple solutions and present the one that allows them best move forward. This reinforces a sense of self-agency and independence.
Problem-based learning promotes adaptability & flexibility
Investigating and solving problems requires students to work with many different types of people and encounter many unknowns throughout the process. These experiences help students learn to be adaptable and flexible during periods of uncertainty. From an academic standpoint, this flexible mindset is an opportunity for students to develop a range of communication aptitudes and styles. For example, in the beginning research phases, students must gather multiple perspectives and gain a clear understanding of their various audiences. As they move into the later project phases they must develop more nuanced ways to communicate with each audience, from clearly presenting information to persuasion to defending the merits of a new idea.
Problem-based learning is persistent
Educators recognize that when students are working towards a real goal they care about, they show increased investment and willingness to persist through challenges. Problem-based learning requires students to navigate many variables including the diverse personalities on a project team, the decisions and perspectives of stakeholders, challenging and rigorous content, and real world deadlines. Students will experience frustration and failure, but they will learn that working though that by trying new things will be its own reward. And this is a critical lesson that will be carried on into life and work.
Problem-based learning is civically engaged
Because problem-based learning focuses on using local issues as jumping off points it gives students a meaningful context in which to voice their opinions and take the initiative to find solutions. Problems within schools and communities also provide opportunities for students to work directly with stakeholders (i.e. the school principal or a town council member) and experts (i.e. local residents, professionals, and business owners). These local connections make it more likely that students will successfully implement some aspect of their plan and gives students firsthand experience with civic processes.
The Problem-Based Learning Process
A problem well put is half solved. – John Dewey
The problem-based learning process described in this toolkit has been refined and tested through the Model Classroom Program, a project of the New Learning Institute. Educators throughout the United States participated in this program by designing, implementing, and documenting projects. The resulting problem-based learning approach provides a clear process and diverse set of tools to support problem-based learning.
The problem-based learning process can help students define problems in new ways, explore multiple perspectives, challenge their thinking, and develop the real-world skills needed for planning and carrying out a project. Beyond this, because the approach emphasizes local and community-based issues, this process develops student drive and motivation as they work towards a tangible end result with the potential to impact their community.
Make it Real
The world is full of unsolved problems and opportunities just waiting to be addressed. The Make It Real phase is about identifying a real problem within the local community, then conducting further investigation to define the problem.
Identify what you do and don’t know about the problem
Brainstorm what is known about the problem. What do you know about it at the local level? Is this problem globally relevant? How? What questions would you investigate further?
Discover the problem’s root causes and impacts on the community
While it’s easy to find a problem, it’s much harder to understand it. Investigate how the problem impacts different people and places. As a result of these investigations, students will gain a clearer understanding of the problem.
Make it Relevant
Problems are everywhere, but it can often be difficult to convince people that a specific problem should matter to them. The word relevant is from the Latin root meaning “to raise” or “to lift up.” To Make It Relevant, elevate the problem so that people in the community and beyond will take interest and become invested in its resolution. Make important connections in order to begin a plan to address the problem.
Collect as much information as possible on the problem.
Conduct the kind of research experts in the field—scientists and historians—conduct. While online and library research is a good starting point, it’s important that students get out into the real world to conduct their own original research! This includes using methods such as surveys, interviews, photo and video documentation, collection of evidence (such as science related activities), and working with a variety of experts and viewpoints.
Develop an action-plan
Have students analyze their field studies data and create charts, graphs, and other visual representations to understand their findings. After analyzing, students will have the information needed to develop a plan of action. Importantly, they’ll need to consider how best to meet the needs of all stakeholders, which will include a diverse community such as local businesses, community members, experts, and even the natural world.
Make an Impact
Make An Impact with a creative implementation based on the best research-supported ideas. In many cases, making an impact is about solving the problem. Sometimes it’s about addressing it, making representations to stakeholders, or presenting a possible solution for future implementation. At the most rigorous level, students will implement a project that has lasting impact on their community.
Put your plan into action
See the hard work of researching and analyzing the problem pay off as students begin implementing their plans. In so doing, they’ll act as part of a team creating a product to share. Depending on the problem, purpose, and audience, their products might be anything from a website to an art installation to the planning of a community-wide event.
Share your findings and make an impact
Share results with important stakeholders and the larger community. Depending on the project, this effort may include awareness campaigns, a persuasive presentation to stakeholders, an action-oriented campaign, a community-wide event, or a re-designed program. In many cases this “final” act leads to the beginning of another project!
Problem-based Learning & the Common Core
With the Common Core implementation, teachers have found different strategies and resources to help align their practice to the standards. Indeed, many schools and districts have discovered a variety of solutions. When considering Common Core alignment, the opportunity presented by methods like problem-based learning hinges on a belief in the art of teaching and the importance of developing students’ passion and love of learning. In short, with the ultimate goal of making students college-, career-, and life-ready, it’s essential that educators put students in the driver’s seat to collaboratively solve real problems.
The Common Core ELA standards draw a portrait of a college- and career-ready student. This portrait includes characteristics such as independence, the ability to adapt communication to different audiences and purposes, the ability to comprehend and critique, appreciation for the value of evidence (when reading and when creating their own work), and the capability to make strategic use of digital media. Developing creative solutions to complex problems provides students with multiple opportunities to develop all of these skills.
Students are challenged to define the problem and conduct comprehensive research, then present solutions. This student-driven process requires students to find multiple answers and think critically about the best way to act, ultimately building confidence and independence.
Adapting Communication to Different Audiences and Purposes
In the initial research phases, students must gather multiple perspectives and gain a clear understanding of who those audiences are. As they move into the later project phases, they must communicate in a variety of ways (including informative and persuasive methods) to reach diverse audiences.
Comprehending and Critiquing
In examining multiple perspectives, students must summarize various viewpoints, addressing their strengths and critiquing their weaknesses. Furthermore, as students develop solutions they must analyze each idea for its potential success, which compels them to critique their own work in addition to the work of others.
Collecting evidence is essential to the process, whether through visual documentation of a problem, uncovering key facts, or collecting narratives from the community.
Strategic Use of Digital Media
The use of digital media is naturally integrated throughout the entire process. The problem-based learning approach not only builds the specific 21st century skills called for by the Common Core, it also embraces practices supported by hundreds of years of educational theory. This is not the next new thing – problem-based learning is one example of how vetted best educational practices will meet the needs of a future economy and society; and, more immediately, the new Common Core Standards.
The Key Design Considerations for the English Language Arts standards describe an integrated literacy model in which all communication processes are closely connected. Likewise, the problem-based learning approach expects students to read, write, and speak about the issue (whether through interviews or speeches) in a variety of ways (expository, persuasive). In addition, the Key Design Considerations describe how literacy is a shared responsibility across subject areas. Because problem-based learning is rooted in real issues, these naturally connect to science content areas (environmental sciences, engineering and design, innovation and invention), social studies (community history, geography/land forms), math (including operations such as graphing, statistics, economics, and mathematical modeling), and art. As part of this interdisciplinary model, problem-based learning follows a process that touches on key ELA skill areas including research, a variety of writing styles and formats (both reading and writing in these formats), publishing, and integration of digital media.
It’s also important to note that the Common Core calls for an increase in informational and nonfiction text. This objective is easily met through examining real problems. Quite simply, informational and nonfiction text is everywhere – in newspaper articles, public surveys, government documents, etc. Very often, when reading out of context, many students struggle to work through and comprehend these types of complex texts. Because problem-based learning authentically integrates a real purpose with reading informational text, students work harder to comprehend and apply their reading.
Note: Each project has the potential to meet many additional standards. The standards outlined here are only a sampling of those addressed by this approach.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
In the early phases of problem-based learning, students investigate the topic by reading a range of informational and persuasive texts, and by talking to a variety of experts and community members. As an essential component to these investigations on multiple perspectives, students must be able to understand the purpose of the text, the intended audience, and the individual’s position on the issue (if applicable).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
As students consider multiple perspectives on their identified problem, they naturally will seek a wide range of print materials, media resources (videos, presentations), and formats (research studies, opinion pieces). Comparing and contrasting the viewpoints of these various texts will help students shape a more holistic view of the problem.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
As students analyze the problem, multiple opportunities for persuasive writing emerge. In the early project phases, students might summarize their perspective on the problem using key evidence from a variety of research (online, community polling, and discussions with experts). In the later project phases, students might develop a proposal or presentation to persuade others to change personal habits or consider a larger change in the community.
Speaking & Listening Standards
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
Multiple perspectives are an essential component to any problem-based project. As students investigate, they must seek a wide range of opinions and personal stories on the issues. Furthermore, this process is collaborative. Students must trust and work with each other, they must trust and work with key experts, and, in some cases, they must convince others to collaborate with them around a shared purpose or cause.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.5 Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.
Because each problem-based project requires students to analyze information, share their findings with others, and collaborate on a variety of levels, digital media is naturally integrated into these tasks. Students might create charts, graphs, or other illustrative/photo/video displays to communicate their research results. Students might use a variety of digital formats including graphic posters, video public service announcements (PSAs), and digital presentations to mobilize the community to their cause. Inherent to these processes is special consideration of how images, videos, and other media support key ideas and key evidence and further the effectiveness of their presentation on the intended audience.
Simply put, math is problem solving. Problem-based learning provides multiple opportunities for students to apply and develop their understanding of various mathematical concepts within real contexts. Through the various stages of problem-based learning, students engage in the same dispositions encouraged by the Standards for Mathematical Practice
CCSS.Math.Practice.MP1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
Problem-based learning is all about problem solving. An essential first step is understanding the problem as deeply as possible, rather than rushing to solve it. This is a process that takes time and perseverance, both individually and in collaborative student groups.
CCSS.Math.Practice.MP3 Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
As students understand and deconstruct a problem, they must begin to form solutions. As part of this process, they must have evidence (including visual and mathematical evidence) to support their position. They must also understand other perspectives to solving the problem, and they must be prepared to critique those other perspectives based on verbal and mathematical reasoning.
CCSS.Math.Practice.MP4 Model with mathematics.
Throughout the process, students must analyze information and data using a variety of mathematical models. These range from charts and graphs to 3-D modeling used in science or engineering projects.
CCSS.Math.Practice.MP5 Use appropriate tools strategically.
According to the Common Core Math Practices standard, “Mathematically proficient students consider the available tools when solving a mathematical problem. These tools might include pencil and paper, concrete models, a ruler, a protractor, a calculator, a spreadsheet, a computer algebra system, a statistical package, or dynamic geometry software.” In addition to providing opportunities to use these tools, problem-based learning asks students to make effective use of digital and mobile media as they collect information, document the issue, share their findings, and mobilize others to their cause.
Project Example: A Better Community
School Name | Big Horn Elementary
Location | Big Horn, Wyoming
Total Time | 1 year
Subjects | English Language Arts, Social Studies, Math, Science
Grade Level | 3rd Grade
Number of Participants | 40 students in two classrooms
Students informed the school about the importance of recycling, developed systems to improve recycling options and implemented a school-wide recycling program that involved all students, other teachers, school principals, school custodians, and the county recycling center.
While investigating their local county history, students were challenged to recognize their role in the community and ultimately realize the importance of stewardship for the county’s land, history and culture. Students began by researching their local history through many first hand experiences including museum visits, local resident interviews and visits to places representing the current culture.
Challenged to find ways to make “A Better Community”, students chose to investigate recycling.
They conducted hands-on research to determine the need for a recycling program through a school survey, town trash pickup and visit to the local Landfill and Recycling Center.
Students then developed a proposal for a school-wide recycling program, interviewed the principal to address their concerns and began to carry out their plan.
Students designed recycling bins for each classroom and worked with school janitors to develop a plan for collection.
Students visited each classroom to distribute the recycling bins and describe how to use them. Students developed a schedule for collecting bins and sorting materials. The program continues beyond the initial school-year; students continue to expand their efforts.
Project Example: Preserving Appalachia
School Name | Bates Middle School
Location | Danville, Kentucky
Total Time | 8 weeks
Subjects | English Language Arts
Grade Level | 6th Grade
Number of Participants |25 students
Students created Project Playhouse, a live production for the local community. Audience members included community members, parents, and other students. In addition, students designed a quilt sharing Appalachian history, and recorded their work on a community website.
Appalachia has a rich culture full of unique traditions and an impressive heritage, yet many negative stereotypes persist. 6th grade students brainstormed existing stereotypes and their consequences on the community.
Students discussions led them to realize that, in their region, stereotypes were preventing people from overcoming adversity. They set about to conduct further research demonstrating the strengths of Appalachian heritage.
Students investigated Appalachian culture by working with local experts like Tammy Horn, professor at Eastern Kentucky University and specialist in Appalachian cultural traditions; taking a field trip to Logan Hubble Park to explore the natural region; talking with a “coon” hunter and other local Appalachians including quilters, cooks, artists, and writers.
Students developed a plan to curate an exhibition and live production for the local community. Finally, students connected virtually with museum expert Rebecca Kasemeyer, Associate Director of Education at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery to discuss exhibition design.
For their final projects students produced a series of works exhibiting Appalachian life, work, play and community structure including a quilt, a theatrical performance and a website.
Students invited the community to view their exhibit and theatrical performance.
Project Example: Make an Impact
School Name | Northwestern High School
Location | Rock Hill, South Carolina
Total Time | One Semester
Subjects | Engineering
Grade Level | High School
Number of Participants | 20 students
Engineering teacher Bryan Coburn presented a scenario to his students inspired by the community’s very real drought, a drought so bad that cars could only be washed on specific days. Students identified and examined environmental issues related to water scarcity in their community.
Based on initial brainstorming, students divided into teams based on specific problems related to a water shortage. These included topics like watering gardens and lawns, watering cars, drinking water to name a few.
Based on their topic, students conducted online research on existing solutions to their specific problem.
Students analyzed their research to develop their own prototypes and plans for addressing the problem. Throughout the planning phase students received peer and teacher feedback on the viability of their prototypes, resulting in many edits before final designs were selected for creation.
Students created online portfolios showcasing their research, 3D designs, and multimedia presentations marketing their designs. Student portfolios included documentation of each stage of the design process, a design brief, decision matrix, a prototype using Autodesk Inventor 3D professional modeling tool, and a final presentation.
Students shared their presentations and portfolios in a public forum, pitching their proposed solution to a review committee consisting of local engineers from the community, the city water manager and the school principal.