On Problem-Based Learning

This post is intended to be a critical engagement with a practice. It is not a critique of a specific class setting – though this class setting, for reasons no doubt bigger than those who conduct the class, is designed to unquestioningly and uncritically spoon-feed said practice to Graduate Students, who then, ideally, spoon-feed it to their students. Likewise, it is by no means – and I cannot emphasize that enough – a critique of the group I find myself in, working towards a project within this practice. On the contrary, I enjoy working with my group, and am impressed with our ability to overcome disciplinary differences and work toward a form of greater unity.

The practice I will criticize is Problem-Based Learning or PBL. Certainly, PBL is useful in many cases, and seems indeed to be a marvellous tool of connecting laboratories and construction sites, engineering classrooms and what is lovingly called ‘real-world problems.’ I have no doubt, and I say this explicitly without any sarcasm, that PBL helps to solve a great many problems, to encourage a great many puzzled students, and to engage and foster them such that they approach problems of a physical, biological, chemical, mechanical kind with more open minds, and perhaps even an increased awareness of the ethical and economic implications of their problems and solutions.

I will even go farther and confess that I indeed belong – and my graduate colleagues know this all too well – to a group that is decreasing in size as we move along; a group that is convinced that scientific progress is frequently, though not all the time, allied with economic prosperity. That the problems this world faces – and especially the problems the advanced industrial societies face – is not one of science and technology, but one of its usages. Its political stakes. Its economic allocations. Even here, PBL might invite us to think about the framework in which it is presented and presents itself. Usage, politics, the economy – can these be reduced to ‘problems’? What kind of a ‘problem’ is inequality, disparity, political sclerosy?

What, in turn, is a political science, if all it can contribute are ‘ethical problems’?

Apparently, the augurs of higher education have decided that PBL is the new standard of pedagogy, an approach useful in most all cases and applicable to most any possible situation, formation, social relation, engineering problem, scientific practice, human condition, universal rule. From ant farms to human rights problems; everything can, everything will be turned into a ‘problem,’ to be solved by a group of experts, endowed with the latest in their disciplinary knowledge, coming together as kindred spirits engaging in an interdisciplinary conversation, working on a solution in an amiable and egalitarian atmosphere, and proposing the solution to an enlightened public which, after careful deliberation, finally delegates the decision to the elected officials it trusts and cherishes, for it to be implemented.

Either we take the last sentence in its entirety to be true: then political science is useless, and ought to be replaced by quantitative sociology. Or we take it to be a regulative ideal: then political science is merely a science of how to reduce the frictions of the implementation process, given (!) a problem and its solutions.

In both cases, most political science is insignificant. To illuminate my frustration, allow me to go somewhat further and make a gesture that – for my low age – is certainly over-dramatic: then my life’s work is insignificant. Perhaps that is the conclusion that ought to be drawn.

Consider, however, what you throw away when reducing, as PBL does, the entirety of political science to a mere delivery of ‘ethical problems.’ The discipline is vast; it is admirable in its scope and size, its depth and width. It houses, in a doubtless friction-laden and uneasy unity, but a unity nevertheless, an enormous array of approaches; some brilliant and wonderful, some strange and challenging, some doing the work least loved and most necessary of all: the application of models, the collection of data, the testing of theories. It is philosophical: is not the first great topic philosophy has ever thought about the unity of nature and this strangest of all creatures, man, in the city, the polis, the state? Is not man this creature, terrible and wonderful, whose endeavors and challenges, projects and aspirations, are all coming together, converging and intersecting, in politicis? Has not a man who once had Europe under his yoke suggested that ‘politics is destiny’? Are not all the results of science, all the projects of humanity, finally to be considered, transformed, brought forward by, in, and through politics?

Enough lyricism! Examples! Applications!

Consider my group’s work, situated in the PBL framework. We have decided, unanimously and without friction, to consider a catastrophic scenario – hurricane Katrina – as our project’s circumstances, and we will consider the engineering, environmental, physical, economic, and political stakes that lead in buildings has had in this context. How admirable a story of the triumphs of natural science over health problems the lead-issue is! And yet, how politically contested, debated, structured!

Here is – and my group can vouch for its authenticity – the general proposal for the kinds of question that ought to be considered, politically, when a catastrophy scenario of this magnitude is to be brought to students.

1) For the project as a whole: do we want to frame the project as an emergency that already happened, or as a precautionary planning project for if it happens?

– the time horizon is narrower in the former case (more urgency, but also less press coverage and thus less pressure)

– application unclear in the latter: can we foresee all possible natural disasters? How much leeway does our fictitious planning committee leave for unforeseen circumstances?

2) Specific project questions for various planning stages:

– all of them will have a budget, and judging from how politics usually works, said budget is going to be too small (if we do a precautionary planning) or comes with riders, pork barrel provisions, and all kinds of other nonsense (bridges to nowhere, as it were) if we do an imminent disaster relief project

– what are the legal forms to be considered for what out fictitious engineering teams do?

– do we only give advice? If so, to whom: to private business rebuilding / restructuring, who operate under a profit margin, to public-private-partnerships (where the public would have to operate under an albeit smaller profit margin), or to public works?

– does our committee hand out subsidies, and if so, to which of the three forms above?

– whose property is it going to be when we rebuild? This question arises most definitely when we presume public-private-partnerships, but also for private businesses. In the latter case, most urgently (seeing what happened after Katrina, but not as much after Sandy): do we simply rebuild what was before, or do we make things more efficient (infrastructures, for example); and if the latter, who owns the new structures which will inevitably displace some old owners?

3) For installing an emergency system: who operates it? Public (Federal or State), Private, or a partnership? This is not only a structural question: you don’t want to wait for the Feds to declare an emergency before you can unleash the full force of emergency and rescue teams.

4) For advanced planning stages: when our fictitious committee laid the frameworks and turns to specific projects, how much influence should the inhabitants of our ficitious town have? Do we organize town hall meetings? If so, how would we (not the committee, but us) build that into our PBL project?

5) Finally, none of emergency and disaster relief is only an economic or engineering question. Human beings being what we seem to be, it’s also a security question. In other words: how much do we reflect in our project that riots, looting, shootings, “accidents” of all kinds will happen? What police forces do we project (Federal and State, public and private securities), and what consequences might that have for whatever else we have our ficitious committee do?

Despite its convoluted nature – for which the author of the questions takes full responsibility – it ought to be clear that all of these can be framed an ‘ethical dilemma’ – as the PBL approach requires – but all of them exceed the scope of such a dilemma. Indeed, framing them as a mere ‘dilemma’ already does violence to the admirable depths and scopes of scholarship that went into the works from which these questions, naked and humble, are drawn.

And not only scholarship. That is the problem for me: thence my frustration. Political science is never just science. Even the most quantity-oriented scholar does not do political science for the ‘science.’ We certainly love (or, at the worst, are addicted to) politics – but never in and for itself. We care for those whose lives and livelihoods are at stake. We want to engage, foster, preserve what we have, and contribute to a better future. We are not unlike our friends in the sciences, natural, hard, or real. We just think of different solutions, different frameworks, different problems. Which, just to mention it, are as real as those faced by the sciences, by the engineers.

Most political situations cannot be framed as ‘problems’ with ‘solutions,’ and that is what makes politics singularly important, and singularly complicated. It is this arena in which decisions are made, for better or worse.

I cannot help but think that PBL, in reducing politics, and its science, theory, and philosophy, to mere ‘ethical problems,’ is itself a political stratagem, a move in a political game. Consider, then, what you gain when playing that game. Consider, more urgently, what you lose.

This entry was posted in GEDI 2013. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.