What is the “Problem” with PBL?

To any novice or expert PrBL-er (commonly referred to as PBL’s) out there, the common threads of reactions amongst colleagues is evident:

  • Are you crazy? (Initial response: “Possibly. Wait, definitely. Yep.”)
  • Are the students really learning? (Initial response: “Do they learn better sitting in chairs, or ‘up-and-moving?’ So, yes they are.)
  • Is it possible for them to ALL master it? (Initial response: “Mastery is NOT the goal, GROWTH is. So no, they will not all Master it, but they are ALL given the OPPORTUNITY to.”)

And it is the third question that is often difficult for the non-PrBL-er’s out there to understand, and grasp. In a truly effective PrBL environment, the learning is catered towards each student, with personal direction not occurring by the teacher at all. Ideally, in the most perfect PrBL setting, organized mass-chaos should be present. I do not mean chairs thrown across the room, with students hanging from the ceiling. I mean that each student or learning team is approaching the concepts at their own pace, through relevant mediums. It should resemble the following:

  • Provide learners with truly decisive opportunities in their own learning.
  • A problem that is applicable and “hooks” them to push forward with content willingly.
  • Provides opportunities for students to apply their learning in multiple outlets.
  • Meaning is EMPHASIZED over factual information.

The idea is for students to understand their roles, and be confidant in their abilities as learners so as to continually push forward in the cyclic “trial-and-error” process that is common to our surrounding world.

However, I notice individuals citing “problems” with PrBL, as I once had.  Most commonly, those being:

  • Each learner is on a different concept.
  • Each learner masters different concepts at different rates.
  • The teacher does not direct learning, but rather the student.
  • The teacher does not desire mastery, but growth.
  • The learners do not expect to be equals, and the environment is not one of equality.

Yet. I am now convinced upon a year of trial-and-error with PrBL’s that they are the essence of innovative teaching.

While the above are all bold instructional approaches, and it is leap of faith for many educators to take on, it provides huge outcomes. Recently, I began instructing, with much fear to be honest, by not instructing. In the past year, after being introduced to PrBL’s through a partnership with a local college, I began instructing and building my students up to this type of learning. I have learned to not “feed” them information, and likewise they have learned to not “expect” information handed to them. I have my students instruct in personal learning teams in which they designate roles, assign work, and are able to leave or vote a member out of their “team” if he or she is not contributing. It is a bold move, yet a realistic one. This is how my room has transformed:

  • Students directing their own learning; I am not the “expert of knowledge.”
  • I am able to conference with each student, each day clarifying objectives and guiding them on learning struggles.
  • The learning environment has become “engaged,” and incredibly heightened. Often with students shouting out knowledge gained.
  • Students have struggled. And I see this as a reward, for they are now understanding HOW to ask questions. I don’t provide them questions to ask. They MUST seek it themselves, and figure out how to apply it to their situation. I have found how incredibly dependent they have become to this type of learning, and the change has made several students frustrated. Yet, they are learning to question, and isn’t that a gift in itself?
  • Students aren’t all equals along the path of “growth.” The chief goal is not mastery for all, but growth for all. It is a beautiful environment when students do not feel as if they must “race” through concepts. It is even more beautiful when they are given the time to master it at their own rate. For that, isn’t it our ultimate goal as educators?

So when prefaced with the questions over the past few weeks, when observing strange looks on the instructional approach, when addressing how students all master in this type of learning, I can only say this:

Each learner learns differently, and isn’t the PrBL format just that? Providing students with a more transdisciplinary approach, guided by themselves, at their own pace. Providing students with the opportunity to research, ask questions, and present their learning in a means which is relevant and personalized to them? Providing students with opportunities for growth, not mastery?

That being said, the “problems” with PrBL are what make it incredible. Yet, how many are willing to risk TRUE learning, success, and failure (pure disequilibrium) alongside students?


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