PBL: A Disciplinary Critique

In a recent post—that I consider a valuable read for all involved in pedagogy—my esteemed colleague Sascha Engel criticized Problem Based Learning (PBL) as a “political stratagem” and for “reducing politics, and its science, theory, and philosophy, to mere ‘ethical problems.’” And while I concur with many of his thought provoking assertions, and sympathize with his concern for the social sciences in today’s economic climate, I would like to convey some additional thoughts from within another discipline—even though many of the issues that Sascha and I face are, inherently, political.

PBL in the history classroom faces similar concerns to Sascha’s but also some that are unique to the discipline. On one hand, and this should be obvious, I do not have as many opportunities to implement a case study like the ones our groups are putting together in class. I simply cannot make up a case study—and, if I remember correctly, in one video we watched earlier in the semester there was an instance where a high school history teacher was creating fictional historical case studies in her classroom—which is something that I adamantly disagree with. That is not history, nor the practice of the historian. However, I do think that real historical case studies can be given to help inform decisions regarding current issues. For instance, my own group is putting together a fictional case study on the plausibility of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on private land in Appalachia, and there are certain insights that can be gained by providing a longer history—containing numerous primary sources and secondary literature—of mineral rights within the region. But this practice also reduces history to a mere ethical problem for a panel of experts and students and is in great danger of throwing away any notions of historical empathy. In other words, PBL case studies in the history classroom (that seek to find an answer to a particular ethical, political, or economic decision or issue) make it easy to forget that real decisions are, and were, already made for reasons that no panel of experts may be able to account for. I mean, again with regard to mineral rights, it is easy to understand the environmental issues, but can we truly sympathize with the true weight that the selling of those rights entails for individuals of an exploited and impoverished region of the United States? I would argue that PBL would not foster that level of understanding—that level of empathy for very real emotions—and instead would focus the panel entirely on the economic, scientific, and environmental vitality of the business of resource extraction. And that historical and contemporary empathy, or at least an attempt at it, I think, is one of the roles of the historian.

Above, I attempted to put words to a difficult problem, and I am not sure how successful I was, but structurally, PBL is entirely different in the history classroom (once the practice of making up historical case studies is thrown away, which I must stress, needs to be). That is, historical case studies where students determine an answer based on their judgment and discretion are antithetical to the discipline—those decisions have already been made. I can, and do, however, provide numerous primary sources (political documents, speeches, maps and guide books, diary entries, fiction, music, film, music, etc.) in order to give my students a glimpse at how historians practice and think about history (systematically and empathetically). And we do go through this practice together, each of us hopefully learning something along the way. This is what historian Lendol Calder calls “uncoverage,” and despite its usefulness, it too has its limitations. First, historians need context and they need to be privy to the current debates in the field—most students simply do not have this luxury coming into the class. And that is why historians must lecture: students do not understand the context of the primary document and complex scholarship must be synthesized for them (which is difficult to do in a mere fifty minutes) in order for them to place historical events, documents, and actors within said contexts. And history is important in this regard. The historical discussion itself is a discussion of the present and those they do have real world ramifications (politically, socially, and economically). That is, I think, why there is a place for PBL, with regard to modern case studies (real or hypothetical) and room integrate historical documents into them. But as a teacher of history, I simply cannot teach my undergraduates entirely with, or with a majority of, case studies or uncovereage, no matter how many cutting-edge scientific studies say that I should because students don’t learn as well within a lecture setting. And there is merit to those studies; I cannot thrown them away either. Honestly, the only answer that I have arrived at is that my class periods must consist of a combination of lectures, discussions, and moments to “uncover” history by analyzing primary sources. To what extent each of those are important, which also depends on the level of the class, I am still unsure. But that is my role as the teacher to figure out; I must learn to teach as my students learn how to “do” history. For the sake of all of us, the problem solving skills and conversations taught in history classroom are still important to our modern world. And those skills, and those conversations, cannot be completely accommodated for within the PBL paradigm that seems to be being put on us to use if we plan to keep up in our fields. But history needs context; it wouldn’t make much sense without it. And context needs more than lectures, PBL, and scientific knowledge.

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