What’s the “P” in PBL?

One of the issues I talk about a lot with people who are interested in Problem-Based Learning is the “continuum” of integration that I use to tell people how they can implement it in their classroom. How do you want to incorporate the teaching with problems in your classroom? Magdalene Lampert wrote a wonderful book called Teaching Problems and the Problems with Teaching in which she chronicled her journey of teaching a fifth grade classroom for a year with problems (it’s an awesome book, BTW). The way in which you use the problems, the pedagogy you use, and the classroom community you set (the lack of hierarchy, the authority you allow the kids to have, the safety of the risk-taking, etc.) is all hugely important parts of the PBL environment. I found another “continuum” created by someone name Peter Skillen and a colleague named Brenda Sherry. Mr. Skillen, a lifelong educator from Toronto, Canada, doesn’t claim to be an expert in PBL, but has extensive experience in the world of education and has great ideas. Check out his blog if you have time.

He created a wonderful Continua to Consider for Effective PBL which I believe is definitely worth sharing. Although his “P” in PBL is Project, I believe his Continua (since there is more than one scale) is just as applicable to Problem-Based Learning. It reminds me a great deal of what I use in terms of implementation. He also has stated that anyone who would like to add categories should feel free, and I might actually work with that. His categories to consider are


These are amazing to start off with and I would probably add a few more to those including authority (although, I think this is what he’s getting at with trust and locus of control) and perhaps also change the “collaboration” one a bit. It is pretty tricky – this idea of interdependent, independent or dependent learning – dependent on what? The teacher, other students, a textbook? Very complex ideas at stake here. Different types of PBL are being considered and in different frameworks. But what he and his colleague have put together is amazing start to an important discussion.

In fact, it’s really important to decide what you mean my “PBL” is? Even on the public shared website for the American Education Research Association Special Interest Group for PBL there is a “Statement on Nomenclature” about what PBL might be interpreted as meaning. There is an acceptance that there is more than one, and in fact many, meanings for the acronym “PBL” and what one person thinks it is may not be the same as another. I am very open to the understanding that when some contacts me about their own school’s interest in using PBL, I have many questions for them before we start talking about implementation.

Not to belabor the great article by David Jonassen that was published in the Interdiscipliary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, (see my other blogpost Worked Examples in PBL) but I really like the distinction he makes between Project-Based and Problem-Based Learning. What it comes down to for him really is the authenticity of the problem. It’s not really about how many, what kind, or how big the problems are that you have the students do. What it is about how did you plan (or not plan) the problems. He is calling it the difference between “emergent authenticity” and “preauthentication.” (definitions by Jonassen (2011). Supporting Problem Solving in PBL. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem Based Learning 5 (2)).

Emergent Authenticity is when “problems occur during practice within a disciplinary field by engaging in activities germane to the field.” In other words, this is more like when you pose a problem to the students that is something that a mathematician might encounter in real life and an answer is truly unknown (like in real life!!) and they are engaging in that activity of not really knowing that answer and grappling with finding the tools and resources that they need to move forward to find a solution. That is when the authenticity of the problem (or project) is actually emerging as authentic.

Preauthentication is “analyzing activity systems and attempting to simulate an authentic problem in a learning environment.” In high school mathematics classes, this when the teacher knows they want their students to learn something specific from engaging in a specific type of problem or series of problems (mostly like what I do in my curriculum, honestly) and they “set up” a problem-solving situation, but make the kids think that it’s novel. The learning experience has already been analyzed by the teacher and the teacher is giving the students the authority to do the problem at their own pace and draw conclusions, struggle on their own. However, there is some control because it is really only a “simulation” and the teacher actually has more information that can be helpful in terms of learning outcomes, etc. The authenticity has already been “preauthenticated” so that it simulates the experiences of a mathematician as much as possible, but still has the learning outcomes, goals or desired content objectives that might need to be fulfilled.

Which is better? I don’t believe there is a “better”. I believe there is what works for your school, pedagogical beliefs, student audience, teaching style, etc. All of these wonderful categories are what must be considered when you and your department start on the journey towards incorporating PBL into your curriculum. There are many great choices to be made, but it is a long journey and cooperation with lots of reflection are definitely needed. So much to consider.


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