How to Provide Structure for Discovery With Problem Based Learning

Girl builds Brackitz structure.

The York Law School in the UK has introduced PBL or problem based learning into its methodology. To help students make the leap to such a major shift in teaching paradigms, it created a unique handbook to introduce the subject to new students. In it, they clearly and concisely explain how problem based learning provides an authentic structure for discovery by simply turning traditional
education on its head.

“It places the student at the start of the process and reverses the traditional trans-missive approach to teaching. In PBL, the discussion and analysis of a problem starts the process of learning, rather than acting as the end point.”

In other words, problem based learning is takes a real-world scenario  that introduces some elements a student has yet to study. The “problem” then cues the student’s awareness and interest in the various issues or topics introduced. By demonstrating real-world ramifications from the problem, the learner is able to have a “context” that can be used to “identify exactly what you need to learn in order to understand the problem and address the issues which it raises.”


In other words, it is the ideal structure for discovery.

Getting Started with Problem Based Learning

Naturally, that means a teacher or parent may wonder if problem based learning at the elementary level is possible, and the answer is a resounding yes. Many educational professionals are getting on board with the sort of active, hands-on learning that PBL opportunities provide. Not only are they opting to do it because it provides benefits that traditional instructional models do not, but because it is also deemed a far more effective approach for students who will enter the workforce in the coming decades.

Helping students become lifelong learners, it prevents student dependency upon teachers and parents for providing answers, and instead is a model in which a teacher or parent provides the opportunity for a learner to seek, find and use information.

PBL is also responsible for re-energizing teachers, turning them (as one article from The Landscape of Learning indicated) into “co-learners” in many instances. Saying that teaching can no longer be a “stand and deliver” model and rather a “guide on the side” one, the article noted one study that said, “Effective teachers of digital-age learners will be challenged to move away from models of teaching and learning as isolated endeavors.” (The Journal, 2008)

So, what would that model look like…apart from relying on problem based learning strategies and methods?

The Structure for Discovery Based Teaching and Learning

There is a wonderful old saying that goes something like this: Tell me and I may forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will learn. This is an ideal way to view problem based learning. Rather than having a teacher stand at the front of a class (even when using modern technologies), requiring students to show a teacher what they know is the framework.

Essentially, the use of PBL means that a student is a highly empowered inquirer, presented with a problem and its real-world ramifications. They are then tasked with taking what they know, recognizing gaps in their knowledge, pursuing the information to fill those gaps and using it to formulate answers.

The tutor or teacher ensures there is a framework or structure for the student’s different levels of discovery. In that way, they are (as a publication from Indiana University noted) a “scaffold builder and critical reflection enhancer”. In this role, the tutor, teacher or parent can assess what the learner knows and then build something on which that knowledge can be extended and deepened.


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As an example, when problem based learning is at the elementary level, it is often paired with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) concepts. A teacher may present the problem of an appropriately sized container for an array of items. Giving students two-dimensional measurements, they may need to work together to construct three-dimensional containers properly sized.

For instance, they may use a set of Brackitz planks and connectors to frame boxes or 3D rectangles based on a set of measurements supplied in the problem. The teacher or tutor does not explain precisely how this is done but will instead pose questions that guide students to “connect” data from their lessons. Height, width, depth…these are concepts that can be mapped out in a problem of this kind, allowing students to utilize what they know, find out where they have gaps in learning, and find resources to supply workable answers.

Teachers never supply direct answers or even steer students towards specific solutions. Instead, they use questions to provide structure for discovery. Problem based learning is then the framework for deeper learning and comprehension.




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

5 Reasons to Use Problem Based Learning at the Elementary Level

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



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

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