Key Problem Based Learning (PBL) Strategies for Young Learners

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The Center for Educational Technologies offers an incredibly effective explanation of problem based learning.  Indicating that it is based on the idea of teaching “students to learn how to learn", their definition goes on to say that this is achieved when students must solve “ill defined” problems. Doing that means they “practice learning rather than merely memorizing.  Students are not only introduced to facts while solving the problem, but they remember them because the facts are no longer a collection of random information--rather they are meaningful and relevant to solving actual problems. Students learn to apply new information to solve problems.“  

How? A simple list of steps would include:

  • Identifying a “problem”, but one without a single potential solution, rather it should have many
  • Looking at problem solving through key questions that involve what the learner knows, what gaps are in their knowledge, and identifying where they can find the knowledge needed
  • Tutors, teachers and parents stepping away from giving instruction and instead serving as facilitators
  • Learners acquiring knowledge will then apply it towards a solution or continue seeking information that leads them to a more satisfying/effective outcome
Popular with teachers in all grades, problem based learning and PBL strategies are based on unique problems, those defined by only enough information to trigger investigation rather than immediate answers (i.e. ill defined). Solid PBL strategies require there to be more than one answer, and even more importantly, that it can change as more knowledge is acquired.


Think of a child who wants to design a system of buckets and pulleys after seeing machinery in a gravel bank or construction site. They use construction tools like Brackitz with an array of connectors, plug and play pulleys, and so on. They design their first attempt, quickly identify where there are flaws and even learn how to take shortcuts, and then redesign the system. This is problem based learning at the elementary level.


However, problem based learning is not done in a vacuum or isolation. Most learners interact with peers, parents or teachers during the process, and though they may be a source of information, the learner also needs other resources.

Looking at PBL Strategies

What we have learned thus far is that one of the most important elements of PBL strategies is to begin with an objective, not a cut and dry question with yes/no answer, but one with an array of potential outcomes.

Useful answers only come from useful questions, though, and educational professionals recommend the three following queries:

What do I know?

What do I need to know?

How will I find it?

Formal problem based learning also looks at the tutor (teacher, parent, and so on) as a facilitator more than a teacher, “supporting, guiding, and monitoring the learning process” (Schmidt, et al., 2011). While that means that the teacher or parent may need to approach the learning process from the “constructivism” standpoint rather than the classic lecture based model, it results in a more engaged and confident student.

When PBL strategies are properly used, the benefits are many, and students enjoy stronger learning skills, better interpersonal skills, higher levels of self-motivation, and more. As teachers or tutors are more hands off, the students are far more hands on and active.

One of the best PBL strategies is for the educator to expect students to be less effective problem solvers straight away and to simply use pointed questions to serve as the underlying model for problem solving. As a learner or groups’ ability to resolve problems strengthens, the teacher or tutor’s need to steer with questions is reduced.

Keep in mind that PBL strategies can be disabled by over-involvement by a teacher or tutor. “If the teacher guides all the students in the same direction, the students will assume there is only one correct answer and will most likely try to figure out what answer the teacher wants.” (

Allowing learners to take ownership of the problem, the problem solving is best, and the greatest benefits come from the teacher who allows their learners to question things more fluidly and naturally.


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A Simple Example of Effective PBL Strategies

Let’s take a look at key PBL strategies in a real-world context. An elementary teacher wishes to teach children some basics on architecture and engineering. The students have been discussing the “tiny house” movement and have agreed that it is a simple solution to many issues.

The tutor or teacher can ask the students to explain how and why they believe this to be the case by constructing realistic models of a standard, single-family home and also a tiny house designed to accommodate that same family. Using simple building tools such as Brackitz blocks and connectors, they take their 2D models and turn them into 3D designs.

Not only does this give them a realistic idea of scale, but allows them to employ all they know about design, construction, human needs and so on. The students must form a basic objective, i.e. “can a family of four really fit in a tiny house?”

They can then use that three-question model to progress forward and formulate a hypothesis, and attempt to prove it using PBL strategies. The teacher or tutor can steer them towards the most appropriate resources and questions, allowing students to find several potential answers along with more honed understanding of relevant information.

Mocking up models of homes is but one way that PBL strategies can be used to formulate theories, seek new information and prove or disprove hypothesis, even at the elementary age. Doing so sets the stage for lifelong learning models that are proving even more valuable than the more traditional ones.


Schmidt, et al. The Process of problem based learning: What works and why. Medical Education. 2011

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

Problem Based Learning at the Elementary Level

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

How to Provide Structure for Discovery for Problem Based Learning



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

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