Teaching and Learning

in a 2nd grade classroom

Problem-Based Learning

Like project-based learning, Problem-Based Learning is a form of experiential learning.  It is also known as PBL and is often used interchangeably with with inquiry learning, authentic learning, problem-based learning, and discovery learning. What these forms of learning seem to all have in common is that students identify and inquire about real-world problems, collaborate with others to develop a solution, and create a project which demonstrates their knowledge and helps them communicate the information to others. One of the key differences between project-based and problem-based is that with problem-based learning students generally have more choice in the end product and it is more often based on real-world issues. It is important o establish a strong community if PBL is to work in a classroom.  There is lots of room for mistakes and judgements.  If students do not feel safe taking risks among their peers or in front of their teacher, it will not work. Therefore, PBL should start of small and grow over the course of the year as students build their skills and comfort zones within the classroom community.

PBL is a comprehensive approach to teaching all of the same requirements that traditional teaching has, but with higher levels of student thinking and of process skills. Each state, district, and grade-level have specific requirements of content, standards, objectives, and assessment.  Using PBL does not mean that a teacher is not teaching to these expectations and requirements, but rather using a different and more authentic approach to teaching those same requirements.


There are many studies that support PBL (problem-based learning) and the importance of engaging students in this form of inquiry process.  Among the many listed in Barrell’s book (p.4-5), the following are a sampling:

  • “Processing information at higher levels, such as with problem solving, critical thinking, inquiry strategies, and reflection on practice, leads to deeper understanding (Perkins, 1992), self-direction (McCombs, 1991), and enhanced retention and transferability of information and concepts (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000: Marzano, 2003).
  • Authentic pedagogy-involving knowledge construction, disciplined inquiry, and connections beyond school-results in higher student achievement, regardless of race, class, gender, or SES (Newmann & Associates, 1996).
  • Informal observations indicates that some students with learning difficulties (or students who find the traditional classroom routines constraining) are challenged toward more lively and alternative engagements with and responses to content when they have opportunities to make some decisions about what and how they learn on their own.
  • Teaching for understanding requires complex intellectual processes such as those involved with PBL-the need too analyze and process information and draw reasonable conclusions (Barell, 1995, 2003; Perkins, 1992), “Learning with understanding is more likely to promote transfer than simply memorizing information from text or a lecture.” (Bransford et al., 2000, p236).”

Barrell. J. (2007). Problem-based learning and inquiry approach. Thousand Oaks, Ca: Corwin Press

This model of the Three-Story Intellect was created by Robin Fogarty, (1997) and was based off of the Bloom’s Taxonomy that many of us are familiar with. It is a wonderful visual that shows how students must draw on a variety of tools and resources in order to process and apply the information more deeply and create a true sense of ownership.

The Process

Questioning: Often in classes, there is a focus on the first level, but not on the next two.  Through the use of the 3-Story Intellect model, PBL is a way for teachers to see the importance of all three levels and engage students in each of the levels of learning. An important strategy to helping students reach these higher levels of learning is through asking questions.  Not just any questions, but ones that will require students to think, process, analyze, reflect, and respond with an answer other than “yes” or “no.”

Responding: Once students are engaged in the inquiry process, it is important to know how to respond to their inquiries.  “Good job” or “You are on the right track” will not elicit further inquiry. Begin to acknowledge the response with a statement and follow up with another question that may create further processing. Barrell suggests that there are categories to possible responses:

“Empathize with feelings:”I feel the same way at times. Can you share with us what brought about these feelings?”

Elicit good reasons: “Interesting! How do you see these two as similar?”

Elaborate upon an idea: “Please tell me more about your thinking/your ideas.”

Provide more specific information or examples: “Can you give us more details about this comparison? Can you give us some examples?”

Clarify: “It isn’t quite clear to me how parental imposition of house rules, like ‘Be home at 12 o’clock,’ is similar to what England did. Can you help me understand?”

Relate to others’ comments: “How do your ideas relate to Jennifer’s?”

Build upon others’ ideas: “Can you add to what Jennifer said?”

Reflect metacognitively: “I wonder how you thought of that comparison. Could you tell us please?”

“The aim is to communicate genuine interest in knowing more about the student’s thoughts and feelings. ” (Barrell, 2007). These are strategies that I find extremely useful with my students.  The know they are being heard and their thoughts and ideas are validated, yet they are required to think and process a bit further about an idea or concept. It also models for them what a quality conversation should sound like and feel like and they are more likely to use the same stragies among their peers when working in groups solving problems and creating group products (end result of an inquiry task: poster, presentation, model, written paper, skit, etc).

Peer Discussion: The next step is to promote students to engage in their own genuine discussion of inquiry.  Sometimes a discussion can be around a particular fact or principle, but a more genuine discussion is one that focuses on complex questions or issues. Again, it is very important that a close classroom community has been formed to generate deep discussions.  If students do not feel comfortable being wrong or sounding silly at times, they will not take risks in conversations like these. It is amazing when you can hear 2nd graders or any age student respond to a peer with questioning such as, “I really like that idea. How are we going to use that in our skit?” or “I think I understand what you are saying. Could you tell me more?” That is when you know it is really working and you are facilitating and guiding, rather than lecturing and feeding the students facts.

What’s My Thinking on PBL?

As a second-grade teacher for several years and an educator for 13 years, I have found using problem-based learning strategies in my classroom extremely beneficial to students’ learning.  My classroom environment is more open and students are engaged in the learning process.  I feel that problem-based learning is the foundation for other forms of experiential learning. The process of gather information, observing, making connections, and engaging in inquiry before making conclusions are part of the larger learning process whether it is occurring  outside in the woods, in the larger community, or in the classroom during math or reading times.

Students must learn to adapt to new situations and content and have genuine discussions in order to be successful in the 21st Century.  They will be competing for jobs that may not even exist today with people around the world.  They must also learn to sift through a vast amount of information that is growing every day via technologies.  PBL is a way to not only teach content and curriculum standards, but prepare our children for the real world and provide them with skills and dispositions to be members of a global community.



More Resources on Problem-Based Learning:

“PBL Definition

Problem-based learning (PBL) is situated approximately half-way between the social and radical constructivist paradigms. PBL utilizes student groups, but each group member is also responsible for independent research. Further, instructor scaffolding is considerably less direct in problem-based learning than in other constructivist models such as anchored instruction. Students are allowed to struggle and induct their own mental model of course concepts with only occasional “life-lines” from the instructor when concept processing falls off-track. Problem-based learning is most similar to case-based instruction, but in its purest form, PBL is more open-ended.

 PBL Overview

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a total approach to education. As defined by Dr. Howard Barrows and Ann Kelson of Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, PBL is both a curriculum and a process. The curriculum consists of carefully selected and designed problems that demand from the learner acquisition of critical knowledge, problem solving proficiency, self-directed learning strategies, and team participation skills. The process replicates the commonly used systemic approach to resolving problems or meeting challenges that are encountered in life and career.”

Source: Problem-Based Learning

Role Changes
In problem-based learning, the traditional teacher and student roles change. The students assume increasing responsibility for their learning, giving them more motivation and more feelings of accomplishment, setting the pattern for them to become successful life-long learners. The faculty in turn become resources, tutors, and evaluators, guiding the students in their problem solving efforts.

Problem-based learning began at McMaster University Medical School over 25 years ago. It has since been implemented in various undergraduate and graduate programs around the world. Additionally, elementary and secondary schools have adopted PBL. The PBL approach is now being used in a few community colleges as well.

Students involved in problem-based learning acquire knowledge and become proficient in problem solving, self-directed learning, and team participation. Studies show that PBL prepares students as well as traditional methods. PBL students do as well as their counterparts from traditional classrooms on national exams, but are in fact better practitioners of their professions.”

Source: Overview of Problem-Based Learning


What is a Problem-based Case Study?

A Problem-based Case Study (PBCS) is a structured learning experience designed to focus students’ attention on analyzing the nature of the problem(s) set within the broader context of a real world situation from business or industry.

Students are coached through the “learning cycle” process as they actively engage the learning environment both in and outside the classroom. They work in teams to gather, organize, validate, and interpret data as they work toward solution(s) which they present in the end as proposal for solving the problem.”

Unlike traditional case study methodologies, PBCS begins with students clarifying the nature of the problem, rather than being “given the problem.”

Source: Problem Based Case Study


“The following are some of the defining characteristics of PBL:

  • Learning is driven by challenging, open-ended problems with no one “right” answer
  • Problems/cases are context specific
  • Students work as self-directed, active investigators and problem-solvers in small collaborative groups (typically of about five students)
  • A key problem is identified and a solution is agreed upon and implemented
  • Teachers adopt the role as facilitators of learning, guiding the learning process and promoting an environment of inquiry”

Source: Problem-Based Learning (Learning Theories)



Critical Skills Program Antioch New England

The Critical Skills Program (AUNE)

The Critical Skills That Students Need

The Breakdown: Critical Skills Institute (Remix Teaching)

Problem-Based Learning and Strategies

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