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

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The days of a basic public school education, and even a Bachelor’s degree, providing enough for a young person to get started in a career are long over. The experts at noted this in a recent article entitled “Tomorrow’s Workforce: What Students Need”. In it, the authors pose a simple question:
“Young people in school today will be joining the workforce tomorrow. But are they being prepared for success in the 21st-century work environment?”

Consulting an array of experts, they heard that most believed that students are missing skills essential to the 21st century workforce. Though many have basic computer skills, few have what the article described as the “right” skills.In fact, the report emphasized those two final issues, saying that “Students need to learn how to work well with others-cooperative learning, working in groups.
They also identified problems in the following areas:

  • Lack of reliability and follow through
  • Poor levels of task completion
  • Poor presentation skills
  • Inadequate ability with teamwork.
  • Low problem-solving skills

It is a reason that many educators and parents are turning to open-ended, educational based toys like Brackitz planks, connectors and kits.   And why many go outside of the classroom to find problems to solve in order to nurture deeper learning.

PBL is the Way of the Future

This is why many are exploring options in PBL or problem based learning, and even going so far as to introduce problem based learning at the elementary level. Additionally, many say that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) instruction is an ideal partner to PBL. While many say modern students benefit from STEM for the obvious links it has to innovation and various growing industries or sectors, it is also because STEM instruction paired with problem based learning also supports:
  • Computer and web literacy
  • Life skills
  • Dealing with failure or experiencing “Fun Failure”
  • Deeper learning
  • Effective communication

Journalist Bradley Lands also explored this same issue of preparing today’s students for the future, and he too found some missing elements that can be remedied with PBL. For example, in his article “5 Ways to Prepare Our Students for Their Future?” he quoted one expert, who said that all learning should be “real, relevant, tied to communities, with real application in the kids’ lives outside of the classroom.”

Interestingly enough, that is one of the foundations of problem based learning and PBL strategies. The first step is to find a problem that is not at all abstract, but which has a real, functional place in the learner’s world. Then, phrase that issue in an ill-defined way (a problem that can clearly have more than a yes/no answer), which forces a student into deeper learning via PBL strategies.
The tutor, parent or teacher is advised to encourage learners to ask what they already know about the issue, what they need to learn to find an answer, and where they need to go (or what they need to do) to get all that is required. This is a key ingredient to what many call the “design process” or “engineering design process”

Opening up the entire world to a learner, rather than limiting their potential solutions to pages of a text or specific answers provided by a teacher, ensures engaged learning that is driven by creativity, self-motivation, critical thinking, and more.

As Lands said in the article, when speaking about preparing students for their future, “That means getting rid of the ‘two cultures’ binary. STEM subjects are impoverished without creativity, analysis, critical thinking,” thus it is important that learners be encouraged to “think through, with, about, for–and create–new” ways to find information and communicate it.
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Major Paradigm Shift

Of course, this does present an enormous paradigm shift in education. The staff at said this best when they said that the 21st century workforce is going to ask much more of a learner than just “following directions and meeting deadlines.”

Rather, they are going to be tasked with outside of the box thinking, the need to take in new data very quickly and clearly communicate within a group – whether online or in the real world.

Yet, in their study of the matter, they ask: “How can one learn to solve problems or manage their own time if they are always given the answers before even realizing they are needed? How can a person learn to enjoy learning when they are taught that learning can only be done by listening to a teacher drone on and on and memorizing arbitrary facts?”

Clearly these are rhetorical questions. At the same time, these questions are important in the context of any discussion about PBL. If this model is to be implemented, it means removing kids from behind desks and taking them out of lecture scenarios. It means eliminating step by step instructions and instead putting tools in their hands that allow them to formulate solutions. It means never presuming that learning is about higher education but more about practical application.

Problem based learning at the elementary level is unique from more advanced learning, and when it emphasizes a partnership between STEM topics and PBL, it works best. As we posted in the title - real world problems have more than one answer. Whether it is asking kids to determine how to solve a problem in the home, in the natural world or in the community, PBL is one sure-fire way to authentically prepare kids for their futures.


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
How to Provide Structure for Discovery for Problem Based Learning

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

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