• The Spark

How Problem-Based Learning in the Classroom Can be a Real World Tool for 21st Century Learning

Author:  Michael DiSpezio, HMH Program Author, HMH Science Dimensions  | 09/23/2016

Engineer StudentsThink back to your first full-time professional employment.  Most likely, you worked with one or more people within a team-like organization. Each team member had a specific role that was essential to meeting the established goal of the group. Opportunities for communication, reflection, process checks, problem-solving and collaboration helped establish and support your progression through this new world.

Until a few decades ago, most individuals entering the workforce had little practical experience which prepared them for this type of interaction. By the beginning of the 21st century, however, a new pedagogy for teaching emerged that engaged group interaction, higher level skill sets, and self-directed learning. It was called problem based-learning, or PBL for short.

One of the major tenets of PBL is in-context learning.  Sometimes referred to as situated learning or authentic learning, this pedagogy is based upon establishing a classroom environment that emulates a real world situation. Here, students are actively constructing understanding based upon a self-directed approach to an immediate and real world context. Instead of memorizing facts that may never be accessed beyond a course assessment, students build an approach to problem-solving whose framework includes mastery of pertinent content. Both the higher level strategies used in addressing the problem and the accrued real world understanding are transferrable across disciplines and new situations.  

The research supporting PBL has been documented since Piaget’s times. Students are better learners (and memorizers) when they are presented with content that is connected to their immediate world.  Many psychologists believe that this cognitive advantage arises from a self-motivated curiosity to better understand their surroundings.

In science, PBL evolves the classroom from a passive learning setting to an active “lab-like” environment where students assume the role of scientists and engineers.  No longer is the teacher a pontificator of fact, but instead a facilitator who guides student groups through the problem solving experience. As students become involved in the process, they take on more of an active role in their own learning.  

Enter the Next Generation Science Standards. The eight practices of science and engineering profiled by NGSS (and its parent document, the NRC Framework) provides a fertile landscape on which to construct PBL experiences. In fact, engaging in these identified practices is what science PBL is all about.

Here’s how it works. Assigned to teams, students are guided by these Science and  Engineering Practices (SEPs) as they emulate the actions of professional scientists and engineers. For example, the team may select (or in some cases come up with) a question to investigate or problem to solve. It is then up to that team to conduct research on the topic and then generate applicable constraints and criteria. The instructor’s role is not to offer the critical content but to facilitate the construction of the skills essential for all students to pursue this work.

As they move through the SEPs, the teams will have opportunities to engage the other dimensions of science. Using this self-directed approach, learning becomes meaningful to students because they have a direct application to the problem being solved.

In the end, students who have completed PBL experiences have gained much more than increased knowledge retention. They have developed a cache of transferable higher level thinking skills, useful in and out of academic settings. In fact, many have reported improved confidence in problem solving, collaboration/communication techniques and a more effective approach to self-directed learning, skills that extend well beyond the classroom.

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