5 benefits of Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

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It seems like something so basic - yet our modern education system, at least here in India, forgets to teach it to its children. Gone are the days of factory farmed students studying dated curricula designed for the industrial era. There are few schools that dare to change the status quo and this blog talks a little bit about the challenges in running such a place, especially in a developing country.

Moving with the times and learning how to learn in many ways seem fundamental for the modern way of life. Yet, somehow they are blissfully absent within most of the standardized school system. Working together to solve problems and using the tools that modern technology has provided us with to solve them, is a basic skill. This applies to a 6-year old child who has just stepped into 1st grade and adults in every conceivable walk of life as well. Empathy and understanding allows us to show compassion not only to others but also to ourselves and the other animals we share this planet with. A little critical thinking will help us understand how the world got the way it is and this hopefully will cause a shift in perspective that once seen, can’t be rolled back. A good education is the only gift and tool that we need to give the next generation to help them tackle the global climate crisis in an efficient way. They will need a lot more collaboration and empathy for all the residents of this planet both animal and human alike to even stand a chance. 

This brings us back to education. What is the best way to teach these skills and do we have any models that could possibly work? There are many educators and governments working hard to answer these questions and I am no means an expert on the topic, but I have been giving it a lot of thought lately and I would like to share my insights with you. 

Problem-based learning (PBL) is similar to Phenomenon based learning (PhBL) and Inquiry based learning from what I understand. I was first exposed to it during my undergraduate programme in Architecture at VIA University in Horsens, Denmark. It can be defined as an instructional method that engages students and allows them to bring their individual assignments to the group for discussion, collaboration, and consensus. This process is known as social constructivism, which is the underlying framework on which PBL sits.

In PBL, knowledge is actively built by the learner; students are therefore not passive. Students also seek and become active in scrutinizing and constructing knowledge. Furthermore, students face alternative viewpoints by interacting with other students in small groups, thus constructing new modes of learning and healthy debates within the group. This way of thinking can eventually enable the students to be capable of managing their own education and taking responsibility for the work they deliver. 



The top 5 advantages of problem-based learning are


1. Independent learning

 The students in our course were split into groups of 4. Usually 2 boys and 2 girls and as far as possible always from different nationalities. We had students from over 55 countries in our university but some nationalities of course were much more represented. We were given a project that we were to work on for the entire semester. This project was also being worked on simultaneously by an actual construction company and design firm and all the specification were taken from real life. This means that we basically had to do a real life project without the real life risk of a building constructed by 4 second-semester students collapsing! It’s a lot of pressure, but it also build a lot of responsibility.

 We were guided through the entire project by our professors and we were free to walk into any classroom and ask our seniors or other professors questions.  We were even encouraged to phone the company and component manufacturers in case we had any doubts while working. We were putting in full 40-hour work weeks and we were completely responsible for our own learning, the outcome of the project and the result of both the teams performance in the exam as well as our own. This is the basis of learning to learn and it involves a lot of unlearning first. It seems like a basic skill but after 12 years in the education system, it is anything but.


2. Team work

We kicked off every week with a team meeting - which was a review of the tasks that had been completed the previous week as well as everything scheduled for the coming week. We had all signed a team contract at the beginning of the semester and if you upset the rest of your team or were unreliable way too often then you would end up doing the entire project solo which in some sense was impossible. It was a guaranteed fail the exam except for those who were super hardworking, but of course, these were the types who were the least likely to get booted out. Their teams usually loved them because it just made life a lot easier. 

 The workplace of tomorrow is going to look a lot like this and we should really be preparing students for this. Collaboration and working together is how we will solve most of the pressing issues of our times. We need to surpass language and cultural barriers and learn how to get things done. There is an art to it and the earlier in life we learn it the better. 


3. Accountability and involvement

 Reliability and a sense of what it means to honour a commitment was generally lacking in my life before moving to Denmark. It’s an issue that you will surely face in many work environments, schools and colleges across India and it was definitely something that I was suffering from. I’m not saying that everyone in my class was like that. I’m just saying that it was prevalent in the culture and I picked it up. 

 It takes quite a lot to change these old habits and put new ones into place. Following through on your words with action and being organized is a skill that is taken very seriously. It’s not something that was ever taught to us at school. Most of the other kids really enjoyed the structure that the books and lessons provided and there was a certain bliss in never having to think for yourself. 


 4. Active learning

 Most teachers make the act of learning very boring and the textbooks used in the classroom don’t help either. But class is far different from the reality of the real world where you can’t always wait for the information you are looking for to fall into your lap. Most people are willing to share the knowledge that they have and especially in the era of the internet it really isn’t that difficult to acquire the information that you need to get you work done or make your life more joyous and comfortable. Are eggs vegetarian? Are baby chicks killed during the production of eggs in the industry? Well, you can go figure it out. That’s the essence of critical thinking and active learning. All you need to know is where to find reliable sources of information to the questions that you pose and how sift out the reality from all the bullshit. Asking questions and having the skills to find the right answer makes a student an active learner. It’s not a question of inherent brains or knowledge that will make this student excel in life. It’s something that only Problem-based learning can give you. Of course, what’s more important is  being enthusiastic and involved in what you are learning. 


5. Critical thinking

 This is one of the most important skills a person needs to have a fulfilling life. One may say that ignorance is bliss, but at least personally I prefer to have a general idea of what is going on. Critical thinking can help you master your mind and bring reason and logic into your life. You can analyse problems more thoroughly and find more appropriate solutions. This is the exact opposite of copying answers straight from your textbook to your notes. The education system might require and reward rote learning but at the end of the day it is you who has to pay the price for not being able to think independently. It helps the student to develop a viewpoint and an identity that is uniquely his or her own and be proud of it. I think that could be the most valuable thing an individual can possess. 

The top 3 drawbacks of Problem-based learning



 1. Inadequate resources

 It is the perception of most that problem based learning can only occur in classrooms that have a very low teacher to student ratio. Most of the work in this field is being done in Scandinavia and Finland in particular is well known for having a few weeks each term dedicated to the facilitation of Phenomenon-based learning. Many schools feel that they have neither the knowledge nor the resources to follow suit. While this might be the case, I have seen great examples of how holistic education can be provided at super low costs even in the remotest areas. Space for Nurturing Creativity in Uttarakhand, Arivu and Kaliyuva Mane school in Karnataka are some of the ones that stand out. A blend of technology and the utilization of resources at scale will probably make this problem disappear in the coming years. 

2. Faculty intensive

 The biggest problem with the teachers even in alternative schools is that they are from an education system that is fundamentally different from the one that they have to work in. It requires a lot of philosophical enquiry and thought to make the transition and a teacher who isn’t interested in learning her/himself will find it very hard to inspire their students. I think students are capable to teach each other after some point and perhaps its more fun and engaging for both the students and the teacher in the long run. Our professors in Denmark were far more laid back, relaxed and happy that their underpaid, overworked counterparts in India. At the end of the day, the education system in the country is just as harsh on the faculty as it is on the students. 


3. Inconsistency

 This is a genuine concern when it comes to PBL and how we need to tackle this is still a mystery to me. How does a teacher/facilitator/educator make sure the entire class or entire batch of students progress and the same rate and how do they monitor what the students know and do not know? 

 This can only be answered by a simple- they can’t. Even with standardized testing and even within the current education system, no two students will have the same learning outcomes. But once a student has truly learned how to learn, the world is their playground. The can go anywhere and be who they want to be. There is a feeling of agency and self worth that you see in Danish student that is completely missing in their Indian counterparts. It’s that feeling that tells you -’Hey, relax, I got this’. Problem based learning can be a wonderful thing if we learn how to deploy it better. I has helped me a lot in my life and is currently what’s helping me run a business in a field that I never got any formal education it. Bootstrapping your way up from the bottom can also teach you a lot about life, about friendship and most importantly about yourself.

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