Problem Based Learning at the Elementary Level: A Concept Whose Time Has Come
Is rote learning an ideal approach at the elementary level? Do kids grades K-4 absorb knowledge from book learning and repetition more than they do from “hands on” opportunities? Psychological research suggests that the latter, hands-on activity, has many benefits impossible to ignore. Studies have proven that students learning through experience and solving problems may better develop their content and thinking strategies, and researchers go so far as to say that the “evidence suggests that PBL is an instructional approach that offers the potential to help students develop flexible understanding and lifelong learning skills.” (Hmelo-Silver, 2004).
Today, an entire area of education has developed around problem based learning or PBL. It is an instructional method that nurtures learning through facilitated problem solving, and research has proven that it is not only effective, but also one of the most enjoyable ways for children of all ages to learn.
Even more significant is that PBL has been shown to help develop “deeper learning” competencies, and these have been proven essential to successful college careers, professional lives and even civic activities (BIE.org). In essence, it is believed that PBL may reset learning goals (2)and ensure students do not only take in knowledge but have a much greater sense of how to apply it and how it, in turn, applies to the real world.
What Is Problem Based Learning at the Elementary Level?
The full, formal definition of PBL is not at all complex and generally involves a student or group of students focusing on an “open ended problem”. In other words, there is no one solution or answer, and the method is student-focused, allowing them to learn through the experience of solution seeking, experimentation and the application of skills or knowledge they already have.
As you might guess, problem based learning can cover nearly any discipline and it is being embraced by educators at all levels, as well as being introduced to parents and guardians through problem solving toys.
As described in How to Use Problem-based Learning in the Classroom by education expert Robert Delisle, “PBL asks students to demonstrate an understanding…not just parrot back information…In classrooms where educators employ active learning strategies, students talk to each other, not through the teacher, and they initiate and manage many of their own activities…teachers rely less on textbooks…helping students master information needed to solve a problem and building their analytical reasoning skills.”
Students typically gain greater knowledge and develop further skills by working in an investigative and creative manner. It is the ultimate form of self-directed learning which then allows the learner to apply their new skill or comprehension in future projects or problems. It is also something that ensures learners reflect on what they took from the experience and even the effectiveness of the tactics used.
Though teachers and parents may serve a more facilitating role than knowledge-giving role, they too gain a great deal in the process. As Hal White wrote in the Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching, “One must reconsider what students really need to learn and the environment in which they learn. Much of the enthusiasm for the problem-based approach to learning comes from instructors who feel revitalized by the creative energy it releases.”
In other words, teachers and parents are just as inspired by finding or developing PBL opportunities. They must help learners discover ways to enjoy PBL and then develop PBL strategies that allow kids to delve into the issue.
Yet many wonder whether it can be employed at the elementary level in addition to secondary and undergraduate levels. In a word: YES! Education experts are some of the strongest advocates for it. Saying that “traditional rote learning is not working” these professionals strongly urge teachers and parents to look for ways to better engage kids. It is not engagement alone, however, but the remarkable outcomes of this more in-depth engagement they promote and seek. (Hosler, EducationWorld.com)
The Benefits of PBL
Typical classroom instruction may lack the integration of learning from several disciplines and prevent learners from applying what they know or have learned in a practical manner.
For instance, an elementary learner may discover that a square plus a triangle can equal a graphic depiction of a “house” in a drawing, but there are no real-world applications of this knowledge. Using simple tools like Brackitz building blocks, however, can let them explore the engineering behind the concepts. They can “fail” with fun and without upset. Through the use of such tools and PBL opportunities, kids get creative, use math, science, and engineering and better understand how the very buildings they live in stand. Even more importantly, they work cooperatively and in a self-guided manner, promising deeper learning.
Thus, the promise of being able to see and feel how their knowledge may create an impact is noted as a high motivator for children to learn, and get more from their problem-solving scenarios. Yet, this is not the only benefit of problem based learning at the elementary level. There are also benefits that include:
Better student engagement
Development of a more effective model for lifelong learning
Lessons in cooperation
Improved communication and language development
Emphasis on knowledge and understanding over raw data and/or facts
Rewards for self-motivation
Deeper understanding across multiple disciplines
Improved interpersonal skills, including gender equity in group discussions and cooperation
This is also where it becomes so much easier to recognize the areas of overlap with “deeper learning” or “deep work”, and why problem based learning at the elementary level may play a key role in a child’s later life.
Deeper Learning from PBL
The Wm. & Flora Hewlett Foundation awards grants built around deeper learning, pointing out that the job market in the U.S. has changed significantly while many K-12 classrooms continue to operate as they did in the industrial era of the early 1900s. The organization emphasizes that when “today’s students graduate, the most valuable skill sets they can bring to the jobs of tomorrow go beyond basic math and English skills”. They go on to explain that it is competencies like “rigorous academic content, learning how to think critically and solve problems, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, directing one’s own learning, and developing an academic mindset” necessary for success.
Most of those competencies can be introduced through problem based learning at the elementary level. Of course, it also means that parents and guardians will want to discover PBL strategies to integrate into a child’s daily life, as well. At home as well as in-school learning is possible with PBL strategies and PBL opportunities. In fact, they are in great abundance!
Top PBL Strategies for Young Learners
For a learner to enjoy the benefits of PBL opportunities, the real-world problem has to be truly local. It can relate to the child’s play room, their family home, the neighborhood or the school and community. It must be this “close” in order to allow the learner to visibly see the outcome of their effort and enjoy a true sense of achievement or accomplishment.
Teachers or parents can ask the learner to identify a problem that needs solving. A realistic or reasonable scope for the activity has to be created based on learners’ ages and experiences in problem based learning in the past. The learner(s) must be part of the discussions around goals, deadlines and materials to be used, and some brainstorming around potential, actionable steps is essential.
The ultimate goal is to have no single “right” answer, however. It is the learners’ job to discuss options and do the work of finding viable answers to the problem. The presentation of the solution can be anything from a visual depiction using graphs or multimedia, but physical models are often a wonderful way to use problem based learning at the elementary level, and allow for a chance to put concepts into practical application.
Introducing Problem Based Learning to Elementary Ages
Though problem based learning can be put to use in almost any subject and using a diversity of methods, it is a good idea to consider the use of constructing systems and craft-like materials as part of problem solving at the K-4 ages as this ensures a physical representation of the answer to a problem.
Some ideas for PBL opportunities at the elementary level might include:
Designing a playground with structures suitable to the number of students and student needs/interests
Creating building projects for learners both younger and older than the group facing the challenge, and writing directions for assembling the projects
Creating a way to manage school traffic during daily drop off and pick up times with physical models of the school, traffic patterns and so on
Design a structure for a local garden or park that is appealing and has a function or purpose
Create a solution for fellow students who may struggle to hold items as varied as pens and pencils, crayons or cutlery
The possibilities for problem based learning at the elementary level are endless. It requires the teacher or parent to put on their creative thinking caps and work with students to identify a problem and work on solutions.
For those eager to use physical models and engineering based solutions, Brackitz is an ideal solution. Providing an array of components capable of being assembled into physical models, they allow kids to experiment and learn whether a solution works, or not.
PBL promises deeper learning and an array of benefits. It enables learners to deepen their understanding of almost any subject, and tools like Brackitz can provide a ready solution for any number of ages and problems.
Hmelo-Silver, Cindy E. Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?. Educational Psychology Review. September 2004.