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Problem-based learning is an approach to teaching where the process of learning becomes the goal. Rather than focus on how at the end of the week your child will be able to recite the capitals of every state, PBL strives to make learning relevant for a child.

PBL works best with 3- 5 children working together in a small group. The adult who works with the group has the important responsibility of watching the kids as they move through each of the steps. Well-placed questions should encourage broader thinking. The teacher's role is not to give the group answers – or even give them questions to investigate. Instead, the teacher helps the students to find resources so the kids can answer their own questions.

Understand the Problem

The initial question presented in a PBL unit is usually somewhat vague. While it's often a real-life problem that a researcher in the field would likely encounter, it's presented in an open-ended manner so students have the opportunity to approach it from any number of directions.

Assess What You Already Know

Everyone in the group will come with an existing body of knowledge. Rather than assume what a child already knows, even if that child is your own, ask them to list facts that support an understanding of the question.

In addition, it's important to know the skills that each person in the group possess. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, as well as preferences for what they like to do. It's important to help everyone in the group acquire a minimum level of proficiency in certain skill sets. At the same time, it's important to remember that in the adult working world, people who work together as a team usually get the tasks that they'll do best of all. Why not create the same working environment in your PBL group?

Set Your Goals

The next step for the group involves writing a project goal. Once you understand the question and you have a good grasp of what you already know, you can develop a hypothesis of what the solution to the problem may be.

Sometimes when a group begins to work on a PBL project, they'll discover that they were entirely off-base with what they thought they needed to learn. In a case like this, the group has the opportunity to revise their goal statement and continue working towards solving their problem.

Brainstorm Solutions

During a brainstorming process, the group generates a list of all possible solutions. Write everything down at this point. No idea should ever be considered too far out there.

Once the group has exhausted its ideas, they need to go back and rank them. Sometimes, ideas need to be grouped together, first. Some ideas may be combined into one. Some ideas may be discarded as not relevant or beyond the scope of the group. Eventually, though, the group needs to create a list of activities they need to accomplish, in order to reach their goal of solving the problem posed in the initial question.

Backwards Plan

The group will need a sense of how long they have to work on the PBL question. From there, they can break down their time by assigning time frames to each task they brainstormed and wish to complete. At this point, the teacher can provide insight into realistic time management.

The group will also need to break individual tasks into their component parts. Creating a chart or a timeline will help students see how to best organize their time. Posting the chart, or creating a checklist, will help the group see how well they are doing with staying on task.

Discover New Information and Data

The fun starts here. Once the group has determined what it needs to learn, they need to go out and get that information. In some cases, that involves reading books. In other cases, the group may need to interview someone in the field. In other scenarios, the group my design and carry out a science experiment or conduct a site-visit to collect data.

During this stage, the teacher has the responsibility to make sure students have access to quality resources that provide them with answer to their questions. In addition, the PBL group leader can take time, as necessary, to teach critical skills that help in the comprehension of the newly acquired knowledge. While this stage is entirely student-led, it is the point in time where content is taught.

Present Your Findings

The PBL experience culminates with students communicating their findings. If a number of different groups have worked on separate projects at the same time, you can host a Discovery Fair. Much like a Science Fair, the groups create posterboard presentations that highlight their initial problem, their goal statement, and the process by which they discovered their answer to the problem.

Other ways that groups can present findings include creating:

  • An informational brochure
  • A website
  • A magazine-type article
  • A power point presentation
  • A video, much like a 5-minute newscast


April 04, 2020


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