The Problem-Solving Approach

Article excerpt


ALL PEOPLE PROBLEM SOLVE, AND PROBLEM SOLVING is the key to life. Such a bold generalization by British theorist Michael Kirton would be applauded by generations of agricultural education practitioners dedicated to the problem-solving approach to teaching. This approach has been recommended over the years as the primary teaching method by an assortment of well-respected educators. In career, technical and agricultural education (CTAE), the problem-solving approach to teaching usually involves an interest approach, a description of teaching objectives, identification of the problems to be solved, actual problem solution, testing of the solution, and an evaluation of the solution (Newcomb, McCracken, Warmbrod, and Whittington, 2004). While this method is familiar to many CTAE professionals, its title and methodology is not ingrained in mainstream educational research and practice. A question of importance for today's academic leaders centers on the potential for career, technical and agriculture programs to influence student achievement. Investigators of the problem-solving approach believe students become more engaged using inquiry-based, problem-solving learning strategies. Student engagement is maintained when coupled with highly qualified, caring teachers who use a contextualized curriculum that connects new ideas and skills to students' past knowledge and experience.

What is Problem-based Learning?

Problem-based learning (PBL), sometimes referred to as case-based learning, is an instructional tool that has been effectively used in medical training for decades. PBL expects students to collectively experience contextualized, relevant, ill-structured problems and to strive to find and create meaningful solutions. This method needs to be facilitated by instructors, but learning is primarily constructed by students who have been presented with the problem. Thus, the defining characteristics of PBL include:

1. Learning is driven by challenging open-ended problems.

2. Students work in small collaborative groups.

3. Teachers take on the role of facilitators of learning.

As a teaching process, PBL requires students to learn in groups. Social interaction provides learners with opportunities to test and defend their own understanding as well as enrich and expand their knowledge by examining the views of others (Richardson, 2003, as cited in Burris 2005). Teachers may facilitate PBL by making their classrooms/labs communities of learning. The PBL method requires an encounter with the problem or case and a seeking of information and solutions prior to content area instruction. Additionally, most problems to be solved using PBL are "messy" or "ill-structured." Specifically, problems to be solved via PBL:

1. Confuse just enough to provoke curiosity and provide a reason for learning.

2. Provoke thought on new things in new ways.

3. Help students discover what they do and do not know.

4. Ensure that students reach beyond what they know.

5. Create a need and desire for skill and knowledge.

6. Lead to understanding the relationship of a procedure to the problem that makes the procedure sensible.

7. Naturally lead to interdisciplinary inquiry.

8. Build strong communities of learners.

9. Create cooperation in the strongest sense that is based on the will and desire to succeed rather than a set of dictated behaviors that are advocated for the sake of politeness.

Contextualized learning is a fundamental factor associated with PBL. PBL is a form of education in which knowledge is mastered through the same context in which it will be used. The contextualized nature of PBL does not refer to subject-specific or compartmentalized problems. PBL allows career and technical education (CTE) programs to use the context of their discipline to reinforce the basic skills of math, science and English in a hands-on, inquiry-based environment. …


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