Part 2: Good problems
In the March ’08 issue of Teachers.Net Gazette, I introduced you to a set of instructional strategies and techniques called Problem-Based Learning (PBL). PBL features active student-centered learning where students, for the most part, work together in groups to address real-world problems.
|by Hal Portner
Regular contributor to the Gazette
April 1, 2008
This month, I discuss how PBL differs from other forms of learning and provide an example. The primary distinction is that PBL uses the challenge of solving real world problems to introduce curriculum concepts and motivate and focus student learning. Therefore, a critical factor in the application of PBL is the problem itself.
Characteristics of good PBL problems
Higher order thinking skills
In addition to these characteristics, good problems challenge students to not only use, but go beyond factual information to a deeper understanding of the subject. Too often, students view learning as remembering facts, terms and definitions in order to answer questions on tests.
Remember Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives? Bloom matches cognitive levels with parallel student activities, and arranges them from simple to complex.
Good PBL problems induce students to operate at the higher Bloom levels where they
analyze, synthesize and evaluate rather than simply define and explain.
Marion Brady, in an article entitled Teaching Students to Think published in the February 2008 issue of Education Leadership, writes, “A focus on real-world issues can alter the entire culture of a school or school system. It enables students and teachers to experience the "meatiness" of the direct study of reality. It's unfailingly relevant. It shows respect for students, who become more than mere candidates for the next higher grade… and it shifts the emphasis from cover-the-material memory work to a full range of thinking skills.”
Where to find good problems
So now that we know what makes a good problem for use in PBL, where can you find ones that relate to the subject you teach? Some teachers make up their own PBL problems. Others pick up on stories in the media or rewrite an end-of-chapter textbook question as an open-ended real world problem. Two recent publications by Prufrock Press (www.prufrock.com) coach both teachers and students, grade 3 - 12, on using the Internet to solved PBL problems. The books present several real-life problem scenarios along with teaching notes and reproducibles.
Here is an example of a real-world PBL problem for a math, civics, physics, or even a driver education class.
The city parking commission is considering changing the parking on Main Street in order to increase the number of vehicles that can park in the available space. Cars now parallel-park like so:
The parking commission is proposing several alternatives. One of their solutions is to require vehicles to angle-park. They are concerned, however, that cars backing out of angled parking spaces will be apt to collide with vehicles driving by because visibility will be blocked by the cars parked next to them. One of the commissioners proposed that instead of nosing into an angled parking space, drivers back in, thusly:
The parking commission has asked the class to study the maverick commissioner’s suggestion and give its opinion of the idea. They would like to know whether it is better than traditional, nose in angle-parking. Why or why not. What about safety issues, the environment and aesthetics? What about public acceptance and law-enforcement concerns? Is this a brilliantly conceived solution to the problem, or is it the most lame-brained scheme of the century? Even though the class isn’t asked to do so, can we offer other ways to increase available parking space that have not been considered?
In next month’s Gazette, I will suggest ways to organize and structure a class to get the most out of PBL.
(Editor's Note: Here's a 7:28 minute video tutorial on writing a good problem statement ("driving question") teachers.net/gazette/APR08/video/#prob