5 Reasons to Use Problem Based Learning at the Elementary Level

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In a 2013 article in the Washington Post, writer Valerie Strauss indicated that “rote repetition can result in some information being retained, although it is not a particularly effective method of encoding information into memory.” In that one sentence she shines a spotlight on one of the biggest dilemmas in modern education.

Just why are students forced to learn by rote memorization more than they are by alternative methods? Problem Based Learning  (PBL), for example?

 Problem based learning at the elementary level, for example, has been proven to be effective in many ways – and as we pointed out in our article on PBL – including that it has the “potential to help students develop flexible understanding and lifelong learning skills.” (Hmelo-Silver, 2004).

That statement alone seems reason enough to consider the use of problem based learning at the elementary level, but let’s consider this:


#1 It makes education, learning and school more engaging for a student.

If you have ever heard a child say, “Why do I need to know this,” or “When will I use this in real life?” you already understand the challenges of educating them. With problem based learning, though, that question may disappear forever because a learner never receives information in a way that makes them question its necessity or significance. Instead, everything they are learning has meaning and is active rather than passive. Their mind is fully engaged because anything they are doing, exploring or learning has real world relevance.

They may learn about basic architecture, for example, and then be asked to build a basic, four-wall structure with an educational toy like the Brackitz blocks and connectors. This shows them how to use what they just learned and recognize differences between 2D and 3D design, and so on.

#2 Problem based learning improves comprehension and retention.

Hands on learning or direct application of knowledge has been proven more effective in younger students. For example, Purdue University did a study in which students were taught in classic methods about human impact on water and water quality, studying printed materials and listening to classroom lectures. Another group in the same grade was introduced to this topic through PBL. They had to build a water purification system and understand what it took to address water pollution issues. Upon being tested, it was the hands-on group that demonstrated valid and deeper understanding of the topic.

Active learning offers students a chance to use what they learn in real time and this can improve their retention and understanding of the material – regardless of the subject and discipline.

#3 It nurtures deeper learning.

Though it may be frustrating to think that young learners must look ahead to their years of college and professional lives, it is a reality. The modern workplace requires workers who have more than basic knowledge or skills. With PBL, students discover how to use self-motivation, take the initiative, find multiple answers to problems, communicate clearly, work in teams, manage resources and materials, and go far beyond basic math and English at the earliest stages of their academic lives. They think critically, direct their own learning and experience growth. (Hewlett.org)

#4 It is a reward for self-motivation

The classic model for problem based learning focuses on a local problem. It cannot have anything abstract about its location or relevance to a student or learner. This is because the finding of answers to the problem must provide the student with real world evidence that they have made a difference. The students who found answers for a teacher whose garden was failing got to see the evidence of their efforts.

The learner who looks at the way a piece of gear works and then goes home and uses some of their educational toys and Brackitz building blocks to emulate it, may take away more. They may construct a model that does it better, offering them evidence that their application of knowledge and pursuit of a solution makes a difference. (Hosler, Education World)

The use of PBL means that the learner is reliant on their own self-motivation; as the teacher or parent does not offer answers and information. They guide and support without handing over any solutions, and in the end a student can feel a sense of achievement that may not be so tangible with standard rote learning.


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#5 It can develop interpersonal skills

The learner involved in any PBL experience is going to have to collaborate, cooperate, communicate and share. These are key experiences for anyone at any age, but at the elementary level it can be particularly beneficial. As one educator discovered when using toys as part of problem based learning in an elementary setting, “students…became more aware of how different people use language for different purposes.” (Church, et al. 2007)

Breaking the mold of classic educational models, problem based learning is becoming more widely accepted. It allows children to be at the center of the process, and in this way it gives them far more from every learning experience.


Hmelo-Silver, Cindy E. Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?. Educational Psychology Review. September 2004.





Want to learn more about Problem Based Learning? Look here:

Problem Based Learning at the Elementary Level

Key Problem Based Learning Strategies for Young Learners

What Does Problem Based Learning Look Like

Real World Problems Have More Than One Answer: How Problem Based Learning (PBL) Prepares Kids for Their Future

How to Provide Structure for Discovery for Problem Based Learning


Tags: problem based learning, PBL, deep learning, problem based learning elementary

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