Why Problem-Based Learning Isn’t the Problem

“[Problem based learning] requires one to also consider the goals of education—including not only learning content but also “softer skills” such as epistemic practices, self-directed learning, and collaboration that are not measured on achievement tests but are important for being lifelong learners and citizens in a knowledge society” (Silver et al, 2007, p. 105). Discuss this citation by linking it to implications for a school environment driven by test scores or standardized testing.

I remember preparing discussion questions for Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, and Chin’s article “Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006)” and this is one of the lines that most stood out to me. It seemed to sum up what is perhaps the greatest fault in our current education system: it values, in my opinion, all of the wrong things. I remember being in high school (granted it was not that long ago) and feeling like the majority of what I did, particularly the assessments, were not at all useful because they were not in the least reflective of my actual learning. One of the reasons that I was always drawn to classes like English Language Arts and Creative Writing, besides the fact that both included a lot of reading, was that neither involved a great deal of memorization and regurgitation on tests. It is not that I was not capable of these things; in fact, I never had any problem reading over my notes from a class, memorizing the words, and remembering them for a test. I succeeded in classes like Chemistry, where the subject matter did not always make sense in my head, simply because I could memorize information and write it down. It did not really matter that the moment the test was over I immediately forgot all of that information because I was getting grades that meant success. It was only when I went to English classes that I felt real learning took place. English was about interpretation, communicating ideas, and writing about my opinions. (Side note: This is not to say that ELA is superior because it allows for this type of learning and assessment; I’m merely saying that it was the only subject in which I had teachers who would value this type of assessment. It is entirely possible that a teacher specializing in the sciences could create engaging and thought-provoking lessons while an ELA teacher simply has students read something and answer tests questions about it.)

Unfortunately, considering the emphasis our current system puts on things like standardized testing, we are devaluing things like the “softer” skills—things like self-direction and communication skills—which are not only important for developing independence and critical thinking skills, but are generally much more useful in the world after high school. I do not know of a single job in which a person can succeed by memorizing facts and filling out multiple-choice questions correctly. Yet, our current system suggests that if a student struggles with rote memorization, they are likely to be unsuccessful. This is not only misleading and discouraging, but it means that teachers and students are subjected to far duller and less exciting lessons. If teachers are focused on “teaching to the test,” there is far less time for problem- or inquiry-based learning, which is more engaging and develops skills that are ultimately more useful.

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One thought on “Why Problem-Based Learning Isn’t the Problem

  1. “I do not know of a single job in which a person can succeed by memorizing facts and filling out multiple-choice questions correctly. Yet, our current system suggests that if a student struggles with rote memorization, they are likely to be unsuccessful – Superb observation!! You do a wonderful job of connecting theories to your own experiences in this posting.

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