What Does Problem Based Learning Look Like?

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If you are a parent or educator eager to know if problem based learning at the elementary is realistic, it can be helpful to see what PBL might look like in a real-world setting. The Association for Curriculum Development shared an example of one PBL program in an Illinois elementary school. In it, the students were asked to help their former principal with problems they experienced maintaining a healthy flower garden.

The students were in grades one through five and worked together to determine viable answers. They learned about soils, plants, healthy growth, and even got in touch with local experts while conducting experiments with certain plants and conditions. The result? Students became excited about learning, and so did the adults who were involved.

   Yet in our initial guide on PBL,

       We mentioned there were some best practices required for successful                   problem based learning at the elementary level. These included:

  • The need to focus on both local and accessible problems – Nothing could be outside of the learner’s community or environment as this limited the sense of accomplishment experienced when a problem was solved.
  • The need for a reasonable scope for any activity planned – Nothing could be beyond the learner’s age and experience in PBL in the past.
  • The need to sit down with learners to discuss the problem (even allowing them to identify it) – Goals, materials, deadlines and actionable steps should be discussed ahead of time.
  • The need for there to be no single “right” answer – The best PBL strategies include identifying problems with open ended solutions as this ensures students can use the widest range of experience, knowledge and skill to create many answers.
  • The need to determine how a solution is presented – Though multimedia and printed solutions are fine, it is often ideal to have some sort of final, physical product or model for the answer.

Upon initial assessment of this list, it may seem that PBL at an elementary level is not possible. Yet, all of these needs and/or standards can be met for even the youngest learners. “How do you build a house” might be the foundation of a PBL opportunity for even the earliest learners.

A playroom activity of this kind introduces STEM, fundamental engineering, design and other real-world concepts. Using modeling tools like Brackitz building kits or blocks that have no ceiling, supports self-guided learning, and makes “failure” a fun, positive and educational experience.


There are some common barriers or hurdles that a learner might face when seeking to find a solution. For example, inadequate support or lack of resources are two of the biggest obstacles. Yet some educational experts advise that hurdles of this kind can be turned into opportunities for learners to develop communication and “problem solving savvy” (EducationWorld.com).

Discussing this in advance is a good way to ensure students also recognize that their challenges are not to be borne alone or become a source of anxiety or embarrassment. Instead, they can be discussed rationally and coolly as an issue causing delays in the discovery of workable solutions and answers. Because PBL is about self-directed learning, it is important that a child be allowed to reason through certain issues if their critical thinking skills are to benefit, and it is the adult or teacher who listens and offers gentle guidance but never full-blown answers. Instead, a parent or teach steers a learner towards a resource for further information or reminds the child of something they might have already learned.

Examples of Problem Based Learning in Elementary Levels

Research presented by the Buck Institute for Education has demonstrated that PBL is effective at the elementary level and that it promotes deeper learning so essential to later life. It ensures students are more engaged, improves their learning and comprehension, allows them to communicate better, and even promotes educational equity. It enables all participants to see how their learning and application of skills can make a difference.

Statistics from many of the reports utilized by BIE included 40 studies between the 1970s and the 2000s, as well as a report from the NCTAF that indicated that students taught using methods like PBL may score as much as 50 percentile points higher on achievement tests. In yet another report cited by BIE, one group of 4th grade students were divided into PBL and non-PBL learners, with the PBL averaging a mean score of 12.50 to the non-PBL at roughly 11.39. Clearly, most figures point to PBL as offering students a better chance for success.

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Some good examples of problem-based learning in elementary levels might look like this:

  • Asking a learner or group of learners to consider food waste solutions in the home or school.

  • Giving a group a small sum of money to spend in order to help a local charity, and asking them to explain their solution.

  • Tasking a learner or a group of learners with assessing traffic flow in the cafeteria or even the home kitchen and determining if things could be done better.

  • Asking a learner or group of learners to determine ways of tracking and protecting any local species of plants or animals.

  • Showing learners a design flaw in a building or structure, such as a poorly placed terrace or window, and asking them to present a solution to the issue.

  • Challenging students to build a tower of a certain height at the lowest cost where each Bracktiz component has a specific price.

Solutions require effective PBL strategies; learners must use skills and knowledge they have, work with others, take responsibility for certain parts of the problem, find further information if needed and develop multiple answers. It is something that learners of all ages can benefit from, and particularly when there are tools ideal for presenting solutions. Open building systems like Brackitz offer design opportunities allowing students many ways to express themselves. One of the best PBL strategies is to provide a fluid method for proving problem-solving solutions and when wondering what PBL looks like, it is a good idea to incorporate such modeling resources into the home or the classroom setting.





How to Provide Structure for Discovery for Problem Based Learning

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