This is a follow-up to my last post and a reaction to an Edutopia annotated bibliography of PBL research .
I am aware of the calls for educational reform and the proposals that problem-based or project-based activities are a way to address this need for reform. Depending on the sources you follow, you may get the idea that educational leaders and educators are resistant to new and more productive approaches that help students learn if PBL methods are not implemented immediately. I am guessing that those who continue to rely on more traditional methods are aware of the advocacy for what have sometimes been described as “learner-centered”, “inquiry-based” or “discovery” methods and wonder about their own behavior as a consequence.
In reaction to this information environment, I have considered what my role should be. I with my wife have a textbook used in the preparation of future teachers and in the further development of teachers returning for graduate work. Here is my thinking on my role. My job is to identify key issues in the field and offer the best information available related to these issues. I do believe a textbook should be more than a “how to do it” manual. The information that should be made available when a situation is complex may often involve describing controversies and the evidence supporting the different sides of a given difference of opinion.
I believe my job is to encourage reflection on practice alternatives. You cannot encourage critical thinking if you knowingly leave out credible alternative positions. A partial description leaves the decision maker in the dark. To do so would be akin to propaganda. The goal of a textbook when valid controversies exist is not to sell one side of the issue but to help the learner come to a reasoned understanding.
My issue with PBL is that reviews of the research completed by some of the most established educational researchers (some examples appear at the end of this post) have found direct instruction to be a more productive method. These conclusions are based on what the researchers regard as quality studies. It should be noted that a summary of the research does not imply that a given method is always found to be superior. What I find objectionable about the Edutopia bibliography is that there is no hint that this is an area of disagreement. None of the research summaries I mention are included.
There are examples of quality research that demonstrate the potential of PBL (see references for Kuhn appearing below) and there are detailed analyses of the implementation and affective issues that must be considered for PBL methods to be effective (Belland, et al., 2013; Hung, 2011). To borrow the title of a book on a completely unrelated topic “it is complicated” (apologizes to d boyd) and to imply otherwise is simply misleading.
Belland, B. R., Kim, C., & Hannafin, M. J. (2013). A Framework for Designing Scaffolds That Improve Motivation and Cognition. Educational Psychologist, 48(4), 243-270.
Capon, N., & Kuhn, D. (2004). What’s so good about problem-based learning? Cognition and Instruction, 22(1), 61–79.
Hung, Woei (2011). “Theory to reality: A few issues in implementing problem-based learning”. Educational Technology Research and Development 59 (4): 529.
Kirschner, P.A.; Sweller, J.; Clark, R.E. (2006). “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching”. Educational Psychologist 41 (2): 75–86.
Lesgold, A (2001). “The nature and methods of learning by doing”. American Psychologist 56 (11): 964–971.
Mayer, R. (2004). “Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery? The case for guided methods of instruction.”. American Psychologist 59: 14–19.
Wirkala. C. & Kuhn, D. (2011). Problem-Based Learning in K–12 Education: Is it Effective and How Does it Achieve its Effects?, American Educational Research Journal, 48, 1157–1186