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Problem-Based Learning

Want your students to develop high-level communication skills? The ability to arrive at informed judgments? The ability to function in a global community? Flexibility, persistence, and resourcefulness? Try Problem-Based Learning.
by Hal Portner
Regular contributor to the Gazette
March 1, 2008
We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.

…John W. Gardner, founder of Common Cause

Want your students to develop

  • High-level communication skills?
  • The ability to arrive at informed judgments?
  • The ability to function in a global community?
  • Flexibility, persistence, and resourcefulness?

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) has the potential to help your students acquire these and other skills needed in the 21st century.

PBL is a set of instructional strategies and techniques characterized by the use of ‘real world’ problems as a context for students to learn critical thinking and problem solving skills while acquiring essential concepts of the curriculum.

Here is the PBL process.

  1. You present your students with a predicament, dilemma, or similar problem-case. The students, in groups, organize their ideas and previous knowledge related to the problem, and attempt to define its nature.
  1. Throughout their discussion, students pose questions to each other and you, their teacher, on aspects of the problem they do not understand. These issues are recorded by the group. You encouraged students to define what they know, and more importantly, what they don’t know.
  1. Students rank, in order of importance, the issues generated. They decide which questions or issues will be followed up by their whole group. They also determine which can be assigned to individuals who will later share with the entire group. You and your students discuss what resources will be needed in order to research the issues and where they could be found.
  1. When students reconvene, they summarize and integrate their findings into the context of the problem. They continue to define new issues as they progress through the problem and in the process, learn that learning is an ongoing process, with new issues to be explored.

What is your role as the Teacher in PBL?

In PBL, you act as facilitator and mentor. Ideally, you guide, probe and support students’ initiatives, not lecture, direct or provide easy solutions. However, the degree to which you make the process student-directed versus teacher-directed is your decision based on the size of the class and the maturity of the students. The goal is, of course, to have your students take responsible roles in their own learning.

A critical factor in the success of PBL is the problem itself. In next month’s Gazette, I will discuss the characteristics of good PBL problems and provide some examples. Meanwhile, here are a couple of related web sites you may want to check out.



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About Hal Portner...

Hal Portner is a former K-12 teacher and administrator. He was assistant director of the Summer Math Program for High School Women and Their Teachers at Mount Holyoke College, and for 24 years he was a teacher and then administrator in two Connecticut public school districts. From 1985 to 1995, he was a member of the Connecticut State Department of Education’s Bureau of Certification and Professional Development, where, among other responsibilities, he served as coordinator of the Connecticut Institute for Teaching and Learning and worked closely with school districts to develop and carry out professional development and teacher evaluation plans and programs.

Portner writes, develops materials, trains mentors, facilitates the development of new teacher and peer-mentoring programs, and consults for school districts and other educational organizations and institutions. In addition to Mentoring New Teachers, he is the author of Training Mentors Is Not Enough: Everything Else Schools and Districts Need to Do (2001), Being Mentored: A Guide for Protégés (2002), Workshops that Really Work: The ABCs of Designing and Delivering Sensational Presentations (2005), and editor of Teacher Mentoring and Induction: The State of the Art and Beyond (2005) – all published by Corwin Press. He holds an MEd from the University of Michigan and a 6th-year Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) in education admin¬istration from the University of Connecticut. For three years, he was with the University of Massachusetts EdD Educational Leadership Program.

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