Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Problem-Based Learning: Teachers Who Flourish and Flounder

Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Problem-Based Learning: Teachers Who Flourish and Flounder

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION: TWO CONTRASTING TEACHING EXPERIENCES

"Good afternoon students," said Dana as she greeted her biology students at the door. Students energetically entered science class to start a new problem-based learning (PBL) unit on classification of kingdoms. She began this PBL lesson by explaining that, during the next 2 weeks, students would be assuming the role of an ecologist to determine how organisms should be classified. Students quickly identified several topics of interest they wanted to research and were subsequently provided with a research guide to assist with acquiring relevant information. When Dana noticed several students struggling with conceptual issues, such as understanding the ecological role of consumer, producer, and decomposer, she facilitated a short 10-minute lecture to help aid student comprehension. Dana then circled the room. After a few minutes of independent problem solving, she approached groups to entertain questions. She answered one question at a time and spent only a few minutes with any one group. If groups had follow-up questions, she would state, "discuss together and I will circle back around in a few minutes." By the time she came back to the group, students often had answered their follow-up questions themselves. Dana ended PBL lessons with closing discussions that provided opportunities for students to reflect on problems.

Just down the hall from Dana, Emma sat at her desk getting organized as students congregated around the hallway outside her classroom. Like Dana, Emma also taught high school biology in the same school. Shortly after the bell rang, Emma explained to students they were going to work in groups. At first, students seemed excited about learning in groups. Emma distributed a problem for students to read. As students tried to make sense of the problem, Emma sat down with one of the groups and provided assistance for nearly five minutes before moving to a second group. After helping the second group, Emma held a whole-class discussion explaining the problem students were to investigate, identified what students needed to research, and distributed research guides. Next, she sat with one group for an extended time and explained conceptual issues. She neglected several other groups of students while helping the one.

Dana and Emma both flourished and struggled, but to varying degrees, when using PBL instruction. PBL has gained popularity in school curriculum as a means of increasing student gains in cognition and developing critical thinking skills, fostering independent learning, cooperation, and motivation (Chiappetta & Koballa, 2006; Smith, 1995; Sonmez & Lee, 2003). Canadian medical schools are given credit for the modern origin of PBL (Savery, 2006). About 35 years ago in Hamilton, Ontario, McMaster University Medical School pioneered the use of case study teaching, also known as PBL. The benefits of this pedagogical approach inspired other medical schools in the United States and abroad to modify curriculum to include cases that focus on real patient problems (Herreid, 2003). The success of PBL in the medical school environment led educational researchers to study and implement this teaching strategy in the K-12 school setting (Ertmer & Simons, 2006).

Despite encouraging studies on the effectiveness of PBL with K-12 students, widespread implementation of PBL by K-12 teachers has not occurred (Ertmer & Simons, 2006; Wang, Thompson, & Shuler, 2007). The reason may be because teachers often experience challenges when attempting to facilitate PBL (Barron et al., 1998). Thomas (2000) and Hmelo-Silver (2004) both comment on the need for more PBL research in K-12 education. Hmelo-Silver recommends conducting empirical studies that inform educators about adapting PBL in the secondary curriculum, and recent research has begun to address PBL in the K-12 setting (Wirkala & Kuyn, 2011). To implement student-centered instruction like PBL, teachers must effectively facilitate the classroom learning environment, which entails overcoming pedagogical obstacles and identifying achievements in order to maximize learning. …

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