Me: “Howard, can I ask you a more general, philosophical question? Considering all your pioneering work in Problem-based Learning, how would you imagine the school of the future?”
Howard Barrows: “To start with, there would be no subjects. There would be no isolated classes for students such as geography, chemistry, accounting, history and so on.”
Me: “How can this work? What is the point of abandoning specialised subjects?”
Howard Barrows: “It is the designed learning outcomes that drive the learning process and in real-world problems, these outcomes are interconnected. As an example, you come from design. Supposed your students need to produce a TV program, then this is not only about holding a camera and putting it on air, but it is also about casting, accounting, clearing copyright, the ethics of journalism, buying airtime, mastering technology… a whole bunch of learning issues and they are all related. “
Me: “The school of the future would offer highly-integrated projects instead of traditional classes?”
Howard Barrows: “Yes. We would offer complex interdisciplinary projects that already include all the outcomes that traditional subjects intent to convey. Students develop knowledge and skills by achieving the designed learning outcomes. By presenting outcomes in the form of real-world problems, learning becomes more meaningful and relevant to students.”
Hallmarks of Constructivist Active Learning Pedagogy
These were not Howard Barrows exact words as this was not a recorded interview. But it is a truthful account of one of our last conversations during a teacher training workshop in Hamilton, Canada many years ago. Currently, almost two decades, later, Finland started abandoning traditional school subjects in favour of a curriculum reform under the title ‘Phenomenon-Based Learning’, which has much in common with Problem-based Learning (PBL) beyond sharing the same acronym.
(1) Problem-based Learning and Phenomenon-based Learning follow both a constructivist educational philosophy which refers to the idea that knowledge and the meaning of knowledge acquisition are actively created in the learner’s mind. The focus is on students’ critical evaluation of their learning, rather than passively internalising content. (2) Learning is contextual. A real-world problem or phenomenon such as climate change is contextual and requires considering different aspects and perspectives, such as e.g., the quality of people’s lives, mathematics, geography, meteorology, politics and policies, social psychology such as changing consumer behaviour and so on. This is different from most academic problems. Less complex and practical problems such as e.g., running a cafeteria would be another example. Each type of problem-solving or investigation into phenomena requires different kinds of competencies, each problem entails a distinct set of corresponding learning outcomes.
However, not all subjects can or should be replaced, such as e.g., languages, as they are by themselves meta-contextual in nature. Other subjects such as mathematics and music will e.g., still be taught in Finland which is adopting Phenomenon-based Learning. As Prof. Pasi Sahlberg of Harvard University comments “Finland’s National Curriculum Framework is a loose common standard that steers curriculum planning at the level of the municipalities and their schools. It leaves educators freedom to find the best ways to offer good teaching and learning to all children. Therefore, practices vary from school to school and are often customised to local needs and situations.”
(3) The combination of social immersion with autonomous motivation is the key to sustainable, self-directed learning within social contexts. Given the complex nature of most problems, problem-solving is ideally conducted within cooperating teams, rather than competing groups.
(4) The tutorial group structure of PBL avoids oversimplification that easily occurs on an individual level, but it also prevents ‘groupthink’ by encouraging open inquiry and critical, diverse thinking among group members. By discouraging individual power positions, social loafing but encouraging active participation, open inquiry, and consensus based on the better argument, tutorial groups resemble an approximation to what the social philosopher Jürgen Habermas called in his early philosophy ‘ideal speech situation’, which he later concluded as Discourse Ethics. Habermas’ doctrines almost read like a PBL tutorial guide, e.g., ‘Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse‘ (principle of social inclusion) or ‘Everyone is allowed to question any assertion at any time’ (principle of open inquiry). In classroom practice, real world problems appear more meaningful to students as compared to decontextualized abstract tasks and thus support their intrinsic motivation.
Image above: Outline of the core PBL process for a tutorial group. It involves the stages of the group setting, problem identification, idea generation, the identification of learning issues, self-directed learning (research), research review, solutions development and the final self-assessment of learners of their individual and social roles. Educators such as Donald Woods have diversified the process structure for numerous faculties.
(5) In constructivist educational philosophy, reality is based on multiple representations allowing for multiple and multi-faceted solutions to emerge – unlike the single ‘model answer’ in traditional education. During the research and development phase, students become aware of different conceptual and practical approaches. Final solutions are the result of reiterative rounds of research and synthesis by the team, they are not spontaneous assumptions based on somebody’s pet ideas.
When we talked about grades, a hallmark of traditional education, Howard Barrows put forward a rhetorical question “If a pilot is taking 250 passengers from Frankfurt to New York, and you ask him how he feels, what would you think if he answers ‘Like a C minus’?” If an industry representative would ask me which of my students is able to do the job – wouldn’t it be ideal if I can honestly answer ‘All of them, all of my students can perform the job well’? Besides, what does a grade tell us? For example, if a student has obtained a ‘B’ in web-design, is this because she could handle the backend well, or the graphical user interface, or the integration into a database or any combination thereof? Does a grade tell us how a student was performing as a team member, a problem-solver or as a researcher? Traditional assessment is disappointingly un-informing when we take the requirements of a 21st-century workplace as a criterion. As compared to a mere summative assessment, assessment rubrics and formative assessment procedures have undoubtedly narrowed the gap to a fairer and more efficient evaluation, but social skills and research skills are rarely part of academic appraisals.
What is a ‘Problem’ and what is its function?
My colleagues and Howard also had intense discussions about the term of a ‘problem’. Doesn’t ‘problem’ sound too negative? We rarely perceive problems as something we would wish for. Problems can be of high and low complexity and they come in many forms, shapes, and sizes. Some problems might not be considered problems per se, but challenges. A product that works perfectly well without problems may just need an update to keep up with the times, or people might want to discuss openly competing models of desired social futures. More than often, we pose general questions even when we do not face an immediate functional problem, e.g., how do we conceptualise social fairness? What makes a happy childhood? What do we wish for the future of our communities? What is our political utopia?
At the end, the terminus ‘PBL’ was simply too well established in academic discourse so that alternate proposals, such as e.g., ‘Challenge-based Learning’ never gained popularity. For now, it needs to suffice that we talk about ‘problems’ in an extended sense meaning that issues can be of quantitative as well as qualitative nature. In a Kantian understanding, problems and system design issues can represent instrumental as well as non-instrumental (pure- intrinsic) types of rationality. In each case, it is the problem or issue at hand that drives the learning process, not the lecturer or teacher. From a research perspective, theoretical frameworks can complement PBL (by e.g., integrating Critical Theory, Social Conflict Theory, minority group perspectives, Social and Ecological Sustainability, Prospect Theory etc.), depending on the decided research approach.
In the light of terminology, ‘Phenomenon-based Learning’ as in the Finish example represents a limited signifier as well. Phenomenology typically refers to the particular structure of consciousness from a subjective, first-person view. It is a good term in a sense that it emphasises the active construction of new knowledge by a learner, but it neglects one of the key principles of constructivism which is the construction of knowledge with others in social context. It is in intersubjectivity, the reciprocal exchange of perspectives, where learning takes place. Related psychologists in support of constructivist learning are Albert Bandura (Social Cognitive Theory) and Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky contributed an interesting perspective to learning by differentiating areas where a student can learn unaided, where a student can learn with assistance and a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) where learning takes place in terms of a coherent social scaffolding for knowledge creation.
Unlike traditional education, PBL questions its own assertions by promoting metacognitive skills in students’ reasoning and epistemology. A probing tutor asks for the grounds and justifications of group members’ reasoning and asks how group members truly know what they assume to know. In academia worldwide, PBL has established itself as a sound pedagogy to address the deep social, economic, ecological and technological challenges of the 21st century.
Extraordinarily great pedagogy requires extraordinary effort: What is the price to pay?
Since much of what has been claimed about constructivist learning may sound too good to be true, the question arises if I had ever experienced any drawbacks. From my experience, there are critical institutional and individual obstacles to overcome. Constructivist pedagogy requires substantial training of staff and it demands a likewise substantial commitment by the education provider to promote student-centered pedagogy. Policy implementation should be conducted across the institution based on a voluntary buy-in. It requires support by consultants and needs a clear normative endorsement by management. In summary, the implementation of constructivist learning pedagogies is a huge collaborative effort.
On teacher level, resistance to new modes of curriculum delivery is rather common. Teachers that have been delivering classes by rote learning their entire careers often feel reluctant to let go of their cosy classroom authority. Many traditional teachers are not ready to give up their role as classroom authority and to embrace the more meaningful role as a facilitator of students’ learning. They feel that PBL is depriving them of their privileged status. To them, the classroom is their private kingdom. On the other hand, each school or college has some teachers that are motivated to try out learner-centered pedagogy. There are opportunities for supporting and recognising such teachers, to offer them the opportunity to become role-models for others, to organise’best practices’ sharing sessions and to publicise student feedback to persuade those that are resistant to change. On a university level, empirical studies might convince more scientifically oriented staff.
Another issue to resolve is the topic of prior knowledge. How much of prior (mostly conceptional) knowledge should be taught to students as a professional ‘body of knowledge’before they can embark on PBL? Especially students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds deserve to start on the same level as their better-off peers. Related academic discussions contributed new ideas to the qualifying issue of prior knowledge such as e.g., initial lectures on common underlying concepts, ‘lectures on demand’ (by external experts, not necessarily lecturers) or ‘flipped classrooms‘, among many others. During policy implementation, it is critical to carefully balance the dissemination of prior knowledge with classroom learning expectations and to explain to all academic staff how both aspects complement each other fairly.
As a memorable experience, I remember my very first PBL class at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore. Long after the class ended, I had to chase students literally out of the classroom (they ran overtime and the room was booked for other students) as they were still passionately immersed in discussions. I asked myself when was the last time that I saw students truly thrive this way. International studies have confirmed PBL as a superior and more efficient pedagogy as compared to traditional teaching, but practitioners and consultants are in rare supply.
Howard Barrows died in March 2011. To me, he was one of the most influential mentors, reformers, and innovators in contemporary educational philosophy. The list of groundbreaking innovations that PBL brought to the most diverse fields of education is incredible. It ranges from establishing students’ personal responsibility for their learning to learning in structured tutorial groups, employing simulated clients (today we also use computer simulations) and basing curricula on real-world multidisciplinary issues. Most importantly, Howard Barrows’ concept of PBL contributed to empowering learners of all ages by taking an active role in knowledge construction. PBL brought back meaning to students’ learning by introducing process-based solutions development for real-world applications. To conclude with a perspective of Albert Bandura, people are not merely onlookers of their behaviour, but proactive subjects capable of creating desired futures.
Barrows, H. S. (1971). Simulated patients (programmed patients): The development and use of a new technique in medical education. Springfield, Ill: Thomas.
Barrows, H. S., & Tamblyn, R. M. (1980). Problem-based learning: An approach to medical education. New York: Springer Pub. Co.
Barrows, H. S. (1992). The tutorial process. Springfield, Ill: Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
Barrows, H. S. (1996), Problem-based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1996: 3–12. doi:10.1002/tl.37219966804
Barrows, H. S., & Wee, K. N. L. (2007). Principles & practice of aPBL. Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall.