Magazine article Techniques

The Problem-Solving Approach

Magazine article Techniques

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.

What is Inquiry Learning?

Most practitioners make a distinction between PBL and inquiry learning, although there are numerous similarities. Joyce, Well, and Calhoun (2000) explained inquiry as a learning process whereby questions are created or problems are developed by the students based on facts and observations examined logically. Once the learning group has developed questions, available resources are examined to answer the questions or solve the problems.


A central point to the inquiry teaching method is involving students in developing questions, then utilizing problem-solving strategies to discover answers to the questions. Inquiry learning causes students to develop problem-solving abilities they will likely use in the future, while also creating an environment in which the students must examine specific content associated with the problem, thereby increasing content knowledge.

Key to inquiry learning is the notion of a cycle or spiral of inquiry. Bruce and Davidson (1996) developed the inquiry cycle (see Figure 1), but stated it should be viewed as a three dimensional spiral. Learners should think of asking, investigating, creating, discussing and reflecting as means for gaining both knowledge and skill for a particular concept; however, the learners should understand the solution to one problem or question often leads to a more complex problem. As with any formal education, the process may be undertaken within the confines and safety of a controlled learning environment, such as a classroom. Important is the transferability of the content and the process to those uncontrolled situations of the real world.


Theory Behind PBL and Inquiry Learning Theorists are stressing the need for curriculum that provides what is termed "knowledge-in-action" rather than "knowledge-out-of-context." The acquisition and structuring of knowledge in PBL was thought to work through the following cognitive effects:

1. Initial analysis of the problem and activation of prior knowledge through small-group discussion.

2. Elaboration on prior knowledge and active processing of new information.

3. Restructuring of knowledge and active processing of new information.

4. Social knowledge construction.

5. Learning in context.

6. Stimulation of curiosity related to presentation of a relevant problem.

These cognitive effects, inherent to PBL and inquiry learning, are grounded in constructivism, which does not itself suggest a particular pedagogy, but rather provides an explanation of how learning ought to occur. Methods associated with constructivism are often referred to as "learning by doing". Without doubt, PBL and inquiry learning are both learning by doing and exploring.

Recommendations for Teaching with the PBL Method

When considering the use of PBL in the classroom, it is important to consider the role the teacher and students will play. A common theme associated with PBL is that students have a mixed response when encountering a PBL class format. Common concerns expressed by students include frustration because of the ill-structured nature required of the method. PBL requires that students work in groups with the help of a tutor or facilitator. Needed areas of learning are identified and used as a guide to individualize study. Students must identify what they know and do not know and go beyond their textbooks to other resources in the pursuit of knowledge (White, 1996 as cited in Burris, 2005).

Knowledge and skills that are learned in the process are applied to the problem to evaluate the effectiveness of learning and to reinforce and contextualize learning (Maxwell, Bellisimo and Mergendoller, 2001). Finally, learning that has occurred is integrated into the student's existing knowledge base. The instructor takes on a much different role in PBL as compared to more traditional instructional strategies. Most often, the teacher becomes a facilitator, guide or coach. The facilitator maintains the focus on learning, guides the process, meters the challenge, and provides appropriate feedback to each student and group. Teaching using PBL provides students with opportunities to hone their critical thinking skills while practicing important teambuilding behaviors (Vernon, 1995).

The student-centeredness, hands-on nature and opportunities for application of acquired knowledge make PBL an effective instructional method. Teachers must focus on the beginning of instruction and the closure of instruction. Setting the stage and establishing the case at the onset are critical to student success. Planning for and facilitating reflection is also a key to successful anchoring of knowledge that will be gained by students.

While PBL experiences have a structured format of steps or phases for completion of a given task, inquiry-based learning provides an open format that allows learners to formulate their own inquiry process. To engage students in an inquiry-based learning experience, instructors may consider simply providing a laboratory activity prior to the discussion of the curriculum content. In science classrooms, the traditional sequence of instruction was flipped to begin with a laboratory experiment, followed by instructor questions, and finally a discussion of the content, thereby allowing the instructor to check for understanding after the completion of the activity and before introducing the content. Allowing students to report their findings in their own creative way encourages students to communicate their experience and findings in their own words. Encouraging this open communication process may take more time for the teacher to interpret and provide feedback.

During the initial laboratory experience, an instructor's role must also shift from answering students' questions to asking leading questions that encourage students to articulate solutions. Only after some experience with the inquiry method should a teacher pose a lab question for students to answer without a given set of procedures. When using inquiry-based instruction in non-science classrooms students need to develop an interest in the topic, have a plan for how to research it, and have a purpose for engaging in the project. Developing appropriate questions is key; teachers must recognize that questions act as the vehicle to understanding and may help move students past the traditional research questions of who, what, where and when to asking "What does this mean, and how can I use this information?" Teachers report that successful integration of inquiry-based learning requires students to seek out materials for the discovery process; teachers rely heavily on questioning but do not reveal the concepts to students prior to their explorations.

Although initially uncomfortable, the students develop their own explanations for the inquiry problem rather than simply accepting an explanation provided by the instructor. While instructors of science-based classes may engage their students in inquiry learning on a daily basis, CTE disciplines may find the method complementary to other instructional methods currently being used. Teachers know their students and classrooms; it is important that this knowledge be considered in order to assess student readiness for the various levels of inquiry learning. Structured inquiry activities should be used with students until the instructor determines the groups are ready for guided inquiry and the added task of developing a means for solving the given problem. Educational researchers agree that an emphasis on inquiry experiences as a means to push students to go beyond the simple memorization of facts and regurgitation of information can provide a deeper understanding of a specific topic.

Some research has indicated that inquiry-based instruction will be difficult to implement in the current education culture because of concerns regarding the preparation time needed, the perceived lack of rigor in inquiry work, and the perception that students lack maturity to handle the responsibility of directing their own learning. In contrast, the researchers also reported that instructors believed inquiry-based instruction would help students develop much needed skills in independent thinking and problem solving.


Both PBL and inquiry learning have shown evidence as promising practices in a variety of classrooms. If CTE educators in agricultural education are going to add to their toolbox of teaching strategies by engaging students in more than just the problem-solving approach, they should take deliberate action to provide students appropriate opportunities to direct their own learning activities and communicate the findings from those activities in their own words through PBL and inquiry learning. Teaching strategies incorporating PBL and inquiry learning may provide an avenue for engaging the non-linear natural thinking part of our problem-solving endeavors that are the keys to learning and life.


Bruce, B.C., and Davidson, I. (1996}. "An Inquiry Model for Literacy Across the Curriculum." Journal of Curriculum Studies, 28, 281-300.

Burris, S. (July, 2005). "Effect of Problem-Based Learning on Critical Thinking Ability and Content Knowledge of Secondary Agriculture Students." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Missouri, Columbia.

Joyce, B., Well, M., and Calhoun, E. (2000). Models of Teaching (sixth edition), Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Maxwell, N.L., Bellisimo, Y., and Mergendoller, J. (2001). "Problem-based Learning: Modifying the Medical School Model for Teaching High School Economics." The Social Studies, 92C2), 73-78.

Newcomb, McCracken, Warmbrod, and Whittington. (2004). Methods of Teaching Agriculture (third edition). Upper Saddle River, N J: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Vernon, D.T. (1995). "Attitudes and Opinions of Faculty Tutors About Problem-Based Learning." Medical Education, 23, 542-558.

Jon Ramsey is a teaching associate al Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He can be contacted by e-mail at

John C. Ricketts is assistant professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. He can be contacted by e-mail at jcr@uga.eda.

Donna M. Moore is a research assistant at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She can be contacted by e-mail at

Carl Igo is on assistant professor at Montana State University in Bazeman, Montane. He can be contacted by e-mail at

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