Problem Based Learning as a Dance

Having been a science and computing teacher, I commonly hear people say “but your subjects lend themselves well to PBL” and I wonder what they mean.  Of course, it’s true that there are many great opportunities for PBL in science and computing; but these also need ‘enabling knowledge’ to be in place. In some subjects including computing, there is a real dynamic tension between this enabling knowledge, and further knowledge growth. I wonder if it just looks simpler for unfamiliar subjects?

Pedagogical approaches in ICT exemplify this.  Before students can program, they need certain mental constructs. Variables, Loops, Decision Structures and their like.  However, in the application there is a dance back and forwards as mental constructs are built, enacted and extended. In the language of SOLO taxonomy, learning uni-structural concepts allows multi-structural and relational exploration. But, along the way, new facts are uncovered as uni-structural facts, needing to be integrated … it’s a dance that goes back and forwards.

Not all curriculum designers understand this dance… When I was taught computing, the approach taken in COMP 111 and COMP 112 was to cover all relevant uni-structural concepts first. Then we looked at all multi-structural extensions and at the end of the year, we wrapped up in a lightweight relational project.  It wasn’t the most interesting to say the least, and the subject  was notable for the fact that it was unpopular and 95% male.


Contrast this approach to the approach my Math 206 paper in Mathematical Applications – something which ignited our curiosity and motivated me and my friends to spend countless hours in the computer lab. Here we were given some traditional lectures, a series of tutorials, and a list of seven problems to solve. Oh, and by the way,  to solve the problems we would need to know how to program in FORTRAN.  The poor printers were put in overdrive as we printed reams of documentation…

Now if I was going to construct this course myself, I might be tempted to offer a little bit more support in the development of FORTRAN knowledge… but the principle then was sound. The problems were interesting, challenging, real-world and very very fun. Pupil uptake was high and attainment was equally satisfying.

This all reminds me of a book, from my holiday reading list: What the BEST College Teachers Do,  by Ken Bain (2004). In this book, Bain presents his view based upon years of highly successful teaching and upon a rigorous research base:

Creating a Natural Critical Learning Environment begins with raising big questions that students will find important, intriguing, or beautiful.  … building courses around big questions, often questions that are bigger than the course or the particular discipline.  The idea is to get students engaged in a question or problem, and as they pursue that question they learn. . .history, chemistry, journalism, or whatever.  They also develop the powers of their own minds.

Of course, it is still necessary to make pupil’s thinking visible. To build, extend and challenge thinking. In SOLO language, to go to the Abstract and Extended-Abstract.  While PBL offers many opportunities here, we also need the techniques known to many good teachers, that are promoted through the likes of Harvard’s Project Zero which I highly recommend.  This combination of PBL as canvas,  and the application of diverse learning tools (the teachers’ pallet) makes for real magic in the classroom.

Coming full circle – it this easier in computing and science?  No, it requires deep thinking about the learning process in each subject and intricate planning. The one advantage computers give is the immediacy of feedback – but properly trained, peer feedback can be just as immediate and as Eric Mazur at Harvard has shown, can lead to significant learning gains. Furthermore, a key element of PBL is the engagement of ‘real world audiences’ … giving rather effective feedback!

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