PBL in a disenchanted formal world

      “I would therefore propose, as a very first definition of critique, this general characterization: the art of not being
governed quite so much”. (Foucault – The Politics of Truth, 1997, p.29)

The literature on problem-based learning encourages us to ask ourselves: What do we know about the problem and what we do not know about the problem? How can we know that we do not know what we still do not know? PBL encourages the engagement of the students with case studies and the ‘real’ world. So far, so good. Lectures do not really help students to become active learners. But how does the ‘real’ world enable critical thinking? What is exactly critical thinking?

I have some thoughts about the formality of education and some possible limitations of PBL. How far can we go thinking ‘outside of box’ without the constraints of form and structure? I had a non-traditional education. For 14 years (3 to 17 years old), I was part of the same school in my hometown. We were like a family. We had music classes, artistic design classes, a number of collective work and leisure activities. While I was still in my first grades, we had a little garden in which we planted some vegetables and/or flowers. We had music contests, once in a while we had to write and present plays to the public, we played sports, created dance coreographies, among other interesting things. We had exams, but the homework was rarely some individual task. This school was not the most expensive. It was actually considered a weak school, because it did not really prepared students for standardized tests to get into college.

I had to go for 2 years to a preparation course to successfully take the exams and go to the university. If once I was told to be a smart student, engaged and curious, I suddenly felt I was the most stupid in the world. I made my way to the grad school, but I often hear that though I have great insights, I am still not able to translated them into a coherent and well structured text. I had only one professor, in 2010, who saw beyond the structure of my written work and this definetely made the difference in my decision to insist on the academic carreer. He told me I ask good questions.

What are the good questions? Somehow I feel good questions come from our connection to what we learn. I use the word ‘feel’ because I do not believe reason has taught me much more than feelings. I was able to stand out in that class because he asked us to do reflexive work. I have always learnt through experience. There was never separate subjects and objects in my learning process. This helped to develop what some people call ‘critical thinking’. The problem is that my thinking is constantly  ‘governed’ and permeated by the demands of scholarly work. What are the limits of PBL if you encourage students to think and engage with case studies, but at the same time you establish the tools that they may use to think? For example, some of the texts on PBL defines it as ‘applying the discipline to the real world’. Although I believe a lot of what we traditionally learn remains important to solve problems, we should be aware of the limits of this kind of reasoning.

Another issue I have with PBL is the extent to which they are involved with the problem they are trying to solve. There is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that says that “we are not able to solve a problem with the same mind that created it”. What are the limitations the “real world” imposes upon us? How could we improve PBL by thinking around the problem instead of thinking about it or within it? I developed a critical thinking (I guess), but I was not thinking about any problem specifically while I was having fun as a child in school. Now, what is more important? What I think or the resources and skills I have available to express it?

Tinker Bell   At least at early ages, I believe there are a number of fun ways to make children to develop a critical mind without having necessarily to immerse them in the ‘real’. We need to re-enchant childhood and keep some of the myths and hopes of this fantastic world as we grow up. Higher education can be about the real world, but I would claim for the maintenance of some of the spaces to the creation of a fantastic better world.

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