TBL for PBL: Enriching Problem and Project Based Learning with Skillful Thinking

Part one. What can we do to save the bees?

1. Since 2010 various movements to introduce innovations in classroom instruction have broken teaching away from using the school day as a centerpiece of instruction and learning. And in many cases, it has been replaced with learning built around extended units that replace what used to be focused content themes from the disciplines with broadened inter-and trans-disciplinary themes and the clustering of learning activities together into a broad set of objectives related to solving in depth an interrelated group of extended concrete and real-world problems. Usually, such groupings of extended learning are called Problem-Based Learning (PBL). But clustering together interrelated cross disciplinary themes into extended units of study is not what makes Problem-Based Learning special.

What more should we expect to find in good examples of PBL? Let’s go back to the history of the development of PBL as a new route to learning to see if we can find some answers there.

2. Problem – Based Learning (PBL) was originally conceived in a medical school in Canada in the 1970s by Dr. Howard Barrows. He wanted to plunge students from the minute they entered medical school into internship relationships with faculty members in which patients came in with specific medical problems and need their help to solve them. Dr. Barrows found out that students who had taken the required anatomy and physiology courses offered at the medical school they attended as a requirement for getting a MD degree had to wait four years before they were allowed to become medical interns with doctors, and by then they had forgotten a lot of what they have learned four years earlier in these courses.

Dr. Howard Barrows

So, Dr. Barrows introduced an innovation in the requirements for their medical degree. He allowed his students to start internships when they first entered the medical school. And, pretty quickly, things were different. For example, a woman may come into the doctor’s office with a stiff knee. The intern needed to find out what things might cause a stiff knee, how you can tell, and what remedies there are. Then the intern must discuss with the doctor what he or she, the intern, recommended as a good remedy based on this research, why, and what the predicted effects are that these remedies would have on the patient. If the doctor approved, that was the remedy prescribed for the patient. And this was all done without the help of a traditional course in anatomy that medical schools offer. Sound familiar? Others have called this approach Learning by Doing. And over the years other medical schools adopted a similar approach. Harvard Medical School, for example, introduced a similar program that they called the Pathway Program in the 1980s.

Does this really work in contrast to regular top-down learning and its application to specific situations? Well, one amongst the many results Dr. Barrows got was that the problem-solving abilities of these students increased in comparison with students who were going through the regular medical school program. And more recently there has been research that tends to show the same thing in learning when applied to school subjects like mathematics. And many educators expect that even at the primary grade level students whose schools had worked such an approach into their learning experience would get the same results. Hence the name Problem-Based Learning.

3. But I don’t want to stop here because there is more that we should expect with regard to the relationship between the teacher and the students in PBL activity that learning by doing implies and that should appear in PBL projects.  I say this because learning by doing could mean that the students, for example, find that they need additional information to develop a solution to the problem they are grappling with as they engage in PBL. What is the role of the teacher in this case? Well, it is not giving the students that information. Rather, one of the goals of PBL is that the students learn how to find the information they need themselves. And that comes from practice.

There is a common practice that teachers engage in in this kind of situation: they prompt the students by asking extending questions. For example, suppose that 5th grade students, who are thinking about energy sources and their pros and cons, are trying to find out the cost of solar panels as they explore the pros and cons of various energy sources. The teacher can ask simply and directly: Where might you find out how much something costs? And a group of students can then often produce a list like find out who sells them and call them, find out who makes them, if you see any on the roofs of houses knock on the door and ask the people who live in the house, etc. Then they have a plan that they can follow to get the information. But many teachers who do this intend to serve as models so that they start asking relevant questions like these. Indeed, answering these questions becomes the basis of the way they think that the problem(s) can be solved.

One additional expectation is that while the teacher does not tell the students what they are trying to find out in PBL activities, the teacher can prompt them in how they might find out. And when they have practiced this enough, the teacher can simply drop out of the classroom activity so that the students can themselves practice something that they have already learned how to do.  And indeed, this helps students develop the mental habit by continued practice — by persistence. So, I am adding to what we should expect — and practice — as teachers when our students are involved in a PBL activity is to let the students find out what they need to find out by themselves and at most prompt them to think about where to look. These students are then not only gathering information they need themselves, but they have learned how to do that.

And what else? Well, let me say something about the students learning how to do that themselves. This applies not only to gathering information but also to using it to try to solve the problem(s) that originally led to setting this into a Proyect / Problem Solving structure. And it was the complexity of the problems that the expansion and gathering of relevant information and problem-solving techniques that made this a complex process that needed a careful and systematic approach. And that meant more time. And add to that that these were not just text-book problems but reflected real problems that often arise in the world that many schools, and indeed boards of education, made PBL a priority.

Typically, teachers have set up PBL challenges so that they lead to one using of the many innovative structures that had been introduced into efficient but through classroom learning that respected the need to make learning collaborative learning. So into PBL creating teams of students working together to tackle the challenges of the problems they are trying to solve and creating new learning structures to support all of this became the norm. And up sprung PBL schools, the first of which was the Birkdale Intermediate School in Auckland, New Zealand, organized as a school in which all education became learning through PBL, as organized by its principal Richard Coote, and now transformed into a set of educational materials. Of course, to do this well they need more than one class period sitting in a classroom.

Students from Birkdale Intermediate School working on electronic projects.

4. Now let’s go back to the problem of the dying bees and think first about how this can be structured in a standard classroom of 36 students. As practiced in many schools there are a number of ways that the students try to answer these questions. Here is one common one: the internet. And access is easy.

Most students, when using this tool, enter a search word in the box, press enter, and they find on their screen several links. So, usually, they press one that sounds interesting, and a lot of information fills heir screen about the bees, and what remedies work. They copy the relevant parts, download them, and print them, ready to bring to class.

Well, here is one that has appeared:  It is a fungus that is attacking the bees and killing them. And there is now a special remedy just developed that involves spraying the bees with something that repels the fungus that is attacking then — especially developed for honeybees, so those who rely on bees for honey should get it. But another student found an advertisement claiming that nobody yet has discovered what is killing the bees. Which one should these students accept? Well, typically, in situations like this a question usually arises about the reliability of the sources of these contradictory claims. And to make this troublesome to the students in this classroom they both seem to appear on respectable sites. So many students either champion one source over the other because what is being asserted sounds good, and that’s it.

Well, we now know that there is a remedy for this and other situations like it. And one of my intentions in writing this article is to show how in schools in which TBL is a regular approach to trying to resolve conflicts like this, there is a way to resolve this in a way that builds confidence in the class rather than dismay.  So, let’s go back again to that question, not yet look at the internet, and work together with other students in the class in small collaborative learning teams. And let’s not yet ask for answers yet but for questions that we can try to answer ourselves and that we think the answers to which will help us reach some conclusion that we ourselves have confidence in. Let’s ourselves use the skillful thinking we have learned to practice when we are looking for such conclusions that we can defend as reasonable and reliable.

Here is a typical set of questions generated by students now practicing TBL as they try to figure out what can be done to save the bees.

  • What is causing the population of bees on earth to diminish?
  • What impact, if any, can they predict this will have on the other living things?
  • Once they can find out what is causing the population of bees to diminish what are some possible remedies?
  • For each possible remedy, what will its impact be? What do people predict their impact will be?
  • Are these consequences positive or negative?
  • Can we think of any other creative solutions?
  • Which ones stand out as the most acceptable solutions? (Why?)
  • Which is the best solution? Why?
  • How can we find out of it is working?

Well, the students have all learned how to think skillfully and they have had a certain amount of practice in doing this. So, let’s identify the kinds of thinking that are especially important to do well, and in fact that will make explicit the kinds of thinking that we need to do skillfully to build up confidence that the approach is workable or not. For example, the first question — “What caused the bee to start dying?” Students have learned how to think this through in ways that will build their ability to do this naturally, and in the case of causal explanation they have learned to follow this “Thinking Map”, taking them through the need for evidence if they are to advance a judgment of cause.

Here’s a diagram, a horizontal organizer in fact, that students developed to keep track on how far they had gone in solving this problem.

And as a reminder here is the same diagram but at the bottom the students write in below each segment of the diagram, what processes of skillful thinking they would use as they work through solving the problem. Hence, like the simpler thinking maps, these diagrams serve as a way to make explicit the thinking strategy to be used to try to solve this problem but also a record of completion of the different segments.   

And to cap off this PBL now enriched by TBL, here is a sampling of the things that the students learned about as they went through this process.

  • the anatomy and ability of bees,
  • bees and honey,
  • how pollination works,
  • how bees work as pollinators,
  • how the food chain works,

And many other basic concepts about how humans rely on other living things to make them healthy, strong, and to make the species flourish. This is all curriculum content but being learned through PBL. And this, together with much more learning, will all come through the actual engagement by these students with the solution of  a real problem through a set of hands-on experiences that good thinking helps them unpack.

To summarize, the result is a deep understanding of the basic mechanism of the survival of the array of living things on this planet. And all that without a standard textbook that is bound to be distanced from such real down-to-earth learning. And what excitement and self confidence that will result if they actually solve this problem! Real learning by doing!

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