I was perusing articles on the web about problem-based learning (PBL) and ended up at Edutopia. After reading a couple fascinating essays about PBL, I began looking for tags that might forward my search for similarly-inspired work on that site. In so doing, I noticed something odd about how the articles were tagged: there was no problem-based learning tag anywhere on the site (from what I could tell, anyway). Instead, tags displayed “project-based learning.” This leads me to think there’s some sort of confusion, whether at the site administrative or editorial level, that is blurring an important distinction between problem- and project-based learning. I wonder, where else is this distinction left unrecognized? I’ll have to leave that a rhetorical question for now. Putting aside this (potentially) worrisome epistemic muddle, I’d like to point out that the authors themselves have written fantastic essays. In particular, I found fascinating essays following and reflecting upon the efforts of one high school to implement PBL across all its disciplines. These are conveniently collected on a single landing page titled “Reinventing a Public High School: A Case Study in Integrating Problem-Based Learning,” with the case study in question as Sammamish High School in Bellevue, Washington. One of the teachers of Sammamish High School discusses his efforts at teaching World History through PBL. In “Defining Authenticity in Historical Problem Solving,” Robert Hollack writes:
The work of historians involves creating and debating the frameworks for the historical narratives our students use to interpret history. One problem that historians debate is the question of periodization, or how history should be divided chronologically in order to better understand it. We know these chunks of time — or eras — by the more familiar labels given them by historians: classical, medieval and modern, to name a few. … However, we wondered, was it realistic to ask students to do the work of historians? Could we prepare them well enough to have these highly abstract but critical conversations? … Ultimately, we decided that it would be difficult for students to do the work of historians if they had not done the work of historical actors. By “living” the decisions through problem-based simulations, our students would collectively be better prepared to engage in the larger questions that are debated in the discipline of history.
What did this look like in World History? We created challenge cycles based on each of the eras into which the course was divided. Our first attempt at building a PBL challenge cycle took place when we studied the Early Modern Era (1450-1750) and focused on the theme of diplomacy. Students were assigned to empire teams based on their interests, and they played the role of foreign policy advisors. Their mission: to determine how diplomacy could help their empire maintain and expand power. The simulation component culminated in a round of treaty negotiations between empires. We found that while students were energized and came to know their roles deeply, they were not directly engaging in the conversations and debates that historians have. After we piloted our first PBL units, we built in a day for a debrief discussion explicitly linking the challenge cycle with the authentic questions that historians address. This debrief day also allowed students to drop their simulation roles, which frequently put them in competitive or modestly adversarial relationships with one another. They were free to argue against the position their historical figure would have taken.
Another Sammamish High author, English teacher Robert Wood, reflected upon what it means to make the classroom a “culturally responsive” space. In “PBL and Culturally Responsive Instruction,” Wood writes:
As my colleagues at Sammamish High School and I have struggled with development and implementation of a problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum across disciplines, a great number of the discussions have involved a philosophical look at the place of seven key elements within our instructional framework. Through my work with two colleagues in developing new curriculum for tenth grade English, one important philosophical point we confronted was what it meant to include culturally responsive pedagogy in our teaching. Through a focused exercise in collegial collaboration…, we developed an understanding of this concept that divided into different facets: Inclusive Cultural Response and Reactive Cultural Response. … Beyond attempting to address historical omissions, Inclusive Cultural Response also needs to be an active force that changes with the needs of a given group. This can mean responding to the culture of the nation, the culture of the community where the school is situated, or the culture of the classroom. …
Reactive Cultural Response is the ability to change the structure, activities and focus of a class within the school year as you see the personality of a given group of kids emerge. My experience with this aspect of cultural response came about while I thought I was doing an excellent job with this whole concept. … We were using contemporary materials; various national and international perspectives were represented; kids discussed and debated ideas that they had heard about in the news. I thought it a smashing success. However, I was using this technique with teenagers and, as it inevitably happens in this kind of exchange, things began to be about who was winning and who was losing. … But what to do? … The culture of my class and of my students’ learning was in need of a Reactive Cultural Response. … Concurrent with my efforts to turn kids away from viewing discussion as an exercise in point-scoring, I was involved with contract negotiation between our teachers’ association and the school district. This is where I was trained in and began to practice Interest-Based Negotiation. … In short, it centers around people of different positions working together instead of against each other. And it was just what my students needed.
In “Authentic Assessment in Action,” a Sammamish High Music teacher considers the question, What makes for an authentic assessment? After all, as Mark Wilbert explains, a “crucial element of successful problem-based learning is using authentic assessment throughout all stages of a unit to constantly evaluate and improve student learning.” Reflecting on his own experiences and those of his colleagues at Sammamish, Wilbert writes:
In our classrooms, this translates into creating tasks, projects, structures and learning environments that mirror those seen in the real-life problems our disciplines address. Authentic assessments analyze student learning in a manner that is consistent with how our disciplines function outside of an academic environment. … At Sammamish High School, our staff is learning that students rise to the occasion when they feel their work has real value outside of an academic exam, and mirrors what is done in real professions outside of the school. Many of us bring in community members to evaluate student work, helping these young people connect what they do here to life outside of school. We’ve seen students who were previously unmotivated by letter grades buy in when they were asked pitch to a real-life “client” why their project was the best solution to a problem.
In my music classes, my goal is to frame tasks given to students as part of the authentic performance cycle that real musicians follow. When we do comparative listening, I don’t present the task as an assignment their teacher is requiring, but rather as an important step that all serious musicians do when preparing for a public performance. When it’s working, students become empowered to take ownership and find more listening examples on their own, and I become less of an instructor and more of an expert resource for them. I can tell it’s not working when I get questions like, “How many points is this worth?” or “Is this going to be on the test?” The gold standard for authentic assessment is when students begin to develop their own plans for holding themselves accountable and measuring the success of their endeavors.
Other Edutopia essays relevant to PBL that are not part of the Sammamish case study but are worth checking out include Heather Wolpert-Gawron’s “The Power of ‘I Don’t Know’” and Hunter Maat and Katie O’Brien’s “To Teach Facts, Start With Feelings.” Enjoy!