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Problem Based Learning Meets Needs?

Two interactions with members of MSP2 a couple of weeks ago (I know, not good Web 2.0 response time!) prompted me to go looking in NMSA's resources. Both interactions were with MSP2 members: Carla Watts, a teacher in Illinois, and Bernardo Leon De La Barra, lecturer in engineering at University of Tasmania. Carla posted a question to the Math Group asking for advice about how to manage a wide range of abilities in her math class. Bernardo commented that Australia, like the U.S. and other countries, is challenged with a shrinking number of students entering the STEM fields.

Curious about whether there were any recent NMSA publications that touched on this, I checked out RMLE Onlne (Research in Middle Level Education) and found the article, "Inclusion and Problem-Based Learning: Roles of Students in a Mixed... The article is a case study documenting the interactions among three mixed-ability students in a 7th grade science class. Much of the article presents and analyzes the observed interactions among the three students.

The article describes problem-base learning (PBL) as a methodology where students collaborate to solve "ill-structured problems"--problems with no clear solution. This is not to suggest that PBL is "ill-structured," though. In fact, there are some guidelines and processes necessary for PBL to work as an effective instructional tool (e.g., students collaboratively decide what they know, don't know, need to know; they individually research content; they collectively decide on a solution).

According to the writers of this article, research on PBL has tended to be done with gifted students, special needs students, or average students--but no one has looked at mixed ability groups using PBL. These writers/researchers decided to do a case study of PBL with a mixed ability group of 2 average ability students and 1 special needs student.

So...jump to the conclusion: PBL works and fits the characteristics of effective middle school curriculum: Curriculum is "relevant, challenging, integrative, and exploratory." (Actually, curriculum for ANY student group, regardless of age, should be "relevant, challenge, integrative, and exploratory"!) PBL helps all students develop metacognitive skills, social skills, and deeper content knowledge. PBL encourages deeper engagement and motivation for both the able student and the student who is being mainstreamed. And of course, engagement and motivation lead to deeper learning. Engagement and motivation also have a positive impact on classroom behavior (If I enjoy what I'm doing, I stay involved in positive ways). And, the more positive experiences, engagement, learning that students have with content, the more likely they are to consider career possibilities related to that content.

The writers admit that they've only done a limited focused study--one case study on one small group. But the findings should be encouraging to any teacher who wants to try PBL to address the issues of different abilities, motivation, and expectations about STEM careers.RMLE article on PBL.pdf

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Comment by Tom Jenkins on July 12, 2009 at 1:40pm
I too- applaud all of you for fighting the fight. We need to create a paradigm shift in the way in which we educate or young people.

Hopefully PBL will become more common place and we can break continue to break down the barriers. In reading the responses a couple of major hurdles seemed to stand out. One is teacher training or lack thereof. Unfortunately many of us were taught with "multiple choice/right or wrong style." I'm not saying that we shouldn't teach facts, but they should be one facet of the process. It's hard for teachers to teach in a different fashion if they weren't shown an effective form of PBL through their education. Add to that the fact that many teachers are such perfectionist that they are afraid to try new things and fail. They would just rather dust off the same lesson plans that have been "okay" for past 10 years. Hopefully communities such as ours will provide the needed support to promote growth. Thanks to all of you for this discussion.

Another hurdle is what Karolee termed "time hungry lessons." Many PBLs eat up such a large chunk of time that it is hard to implement them in a normal classroom setting. Ex. My school allots 40 minutes a day for Science. It's hard enough to do a "cookie cutter" lab with 25-30 students, let alone a PBL whereas the kids have to generate a solution for a complex problem. My solution to this was to combine periods with our math department (thank goodness that I work with flexible people). However, the problem that stemmed from this was that we had to pick and choose dates, because of covering the state standards and the time constraints for standardized testing. In our building, most of the lessons are taught in a form to allow students to correctly answer the multiple choice responses because that is how the majority of the questions on our state test are structured. In the eyes of our community our effectiveness is largely measured through those tests. So, PBL takes the form of a special lesson at the end of a unit for reinforcement and review as compared to a common form of instruction.

Overall it's a frustrating situation for myself. However, it's nice to see that I'm not alone in trying to change things for the better.
Comment by Mary Henton on July 9, 2009 at 12:34pm
I like the your suggestion, Karolee and Russel, about using sort, targeted PBL units. That could be one way to introduce, provide experience, begin to teach students (and their parents!) the rationale behind PBL and the skills to facilitate it. I imagine short PBL units might also open up doors to invite curious or cautious colleagues to give it a try--team teach or develop a PBL that is cross-disciplinary between my class and another subject.

But, I admit, it's easy for me to say. I am NOT in the classroom and do NOT have to deal with the colleagues' apathy, parental push-back, and student slide into conventional learning habits. I applaud you all for keeping at it--for continuing to do what's best in spite of the naysayers and non-support around you. "Good on ya!"

Comment by Karolee Smiley on July 9, 2009 at 12:15pm
Russel, I understand your problem. At my site, I see a slightly different cause with similar results. So, I'll throw this variable out there.

Our district has rigid pacing guides. Although many teachers and administrators see the value of pbl, they also see that pbl can be very time hungry. Many teachers are afraid to deviate from the district mandated daily page turn, especially in math. Unfortunately, the next page in the book is not particularly engaging and students are bored. Teachers would like to try something different, but are afraid to fall behind turning the page.
Perhaps short, effective projects might get them to "take a bite". If they try it, they might like it. Maybe that might motivate them to try more. The problem is finding those. I am a science person and use pbl in my after school MESA program, where I do not have any constraints to district testing schedules. I sure do not know where to begin to help for math.
Comment by Carla Watts on July 9, 2009 at 11:06am
Thanks for all the ideas and information. I use both project- and problem-based learning in my classroom and across the curriculum and will work on ways to incorporate it more into the school's math curriculum.
Comment by Brian Belland on July 8, 2009 at 4:27pm
As far as pushback from parents goes, I think having a principal who is committed to PBL helps a lot. Involving parents in the unit can help too. For example, students need to pursue learning issues, and to do so one of their options is to ask an expert. In the unit I described in the article, students were trying to figure out what to do with a three million dollar grant to further their stakeholder group's (e.g., bone marrow transplant surgeons) position on the human genome project. So a good expert to ask would be bone marrow transplant doctors or oncologists. So if they were not asking their own parents it might have been someone else they knew since the school was a small town. And making it a project that is of local importance is good too. Last but not least have parents or community leaders come to listen to the presentations at unit end.
As for the project-based learning vs problem-based learning issue, sometimes the waters are muddy. In my opinion they are very similar in that they are both hands-on, but with project-based learning there is a project (e.g., create a video about some particular subject) that is intended from the very beginning. Students work towards that project. Whereas with problem-based learning a very big part of the unit is the students figuring out the different aspects of the problem - who are the stakeholders, what exactly is problematic about the situation, and so on.
Comment by Mary Henton on July 8, 2009 at 11:46am
Brian, I'm curious as to what your responses are to some of the comments here. For example, Doug's comment about getting push-back from students AND parents; Robert's explanation of the differencmce between Problem-BL and Project-BL; Tom's comment about identifying appropriate and sufficient background info for students; Rebecca's comment about asking, "Why?"
Comment by Brian Belland on July 8, 2009 at 11:13am
I'm the writer of the article and would be happy to answer any questions that you all have about it. On an interesting note, this summer I am teaching a learning theories class as part of a master's program in instructional technology for inservice teachers, most of whom are middle school teachers. One of the things one of the middle school teachers noted is that middle school students often seem motivationally dead. Most of the other teachers agreed wholeheartedly. One of the best things about PBL I think, is that it is a hands-on, minds-on activity. If you can craft problems that are important to the students, then they will most likely be engaged. Some other units I have worked with in the past dealt with pollution in local waterways, a science museum being built in a former carnegie library (students designed exhibits). As long as students can see the relevance of the problem and it is challenging but doable, it should work. These can and should be tied to standards.

As for the reason medical schools developed PBL, the originators wanted to create physicians who were self-directed learners and good problem solvers. They were working in the 60s/70s to create a curriculum for a new medical school in Canada - McMaster's University:
Comment by Mary Henton on July 8, 2009 at 9:45am
Thank you for clarifying the difference between Project-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning. I like the definition "ill-defined tasks BUT well-defined outcome"
You've prompted some additional questions for me:
1. Couldn't that definition apply to both Problem- and Project-BL? OR, is that definition inappropriate for Project-BL because there is a defined outcome for Project-BL, whereas in Problem-BL, the outcome is "ill-defined"? For example, in this case study, the identified final project demonstration was "a plan for promoting their positions" (p. 4)
2. Is it fair to say, then, that Problem-BL is a subset of Project-BL?
3. Are the reasons that medical schools developed the problem-based model and engineering the project-based model because--
- of the general scope of the outcome: narrow (medical) vs. broad (engineering)?
- the difference between a process-based outcome (medical) vs a concrete, tangible, product-based solution (engineering)?

Whew....thanks for pushing me to think and rethink! By the way...I didn't know that med schools vary in their approaches--that some use Problem-BL and others traditional methods of teaching. I doubt many pre-med students realize this when they are searching for med schools. My son is pre-med, an you can be sure I'm going to share this info with him! So, from a personal standpoint, thank you!
Comment by Mary Henton on July 8, 2009 at 8:38am
Thanks for this example, Eileen. I'm curious, in response to Doug and Rebecca's experiences, how do you coach students (and their parents) to be open to the inquiry process and let go of the long-held need to have a "right answer"?
Comment by Robert on July 8, 2009 at 4:29am
What a wonderful blog! Way to go Mary.
I see there is some interest in the topic. I work with middle and high schools to implement Project Based Learning. We use the phrase/definition "ill-defined task BUT well defined outcome" as compared to Problem Based Learning "ill-structured problems". Problem BL can be small in scope but requires extended engagement to solve (generally a homogeneous solution results given the same set of assumptions- see the Medical Model for Problem BL). Project BL generally encompasses several concepts and is interdisciplinary in nature. The task is broad with many decision points which generally requires many assumptions resulting in divergent solutions (SEE Engineering Model for Project BL). With our work focusing on STEM Project BL we could not find the resources that used the Engineering components of Prototyping and Design. So we wrote a book on STEM Project Based Learning. We are now working on Lessons from the Field. Lessons from teachers who are using Project BL that will be published in the Fall. Feel free to check out our website at http://aggiestem.tamu.edu for resources and information.

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