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What is Interactive PBL (Problem-Based Learning)?

 What is Interactive PBL (Problem-Based Learning)?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had more than a few conversations about PBL, and the opportunities for taking the next steps to build upon existing PBL practices.

But first, let’s clarify what we mean by PBL. And let’s start by sharing what it is not.

1. PBL is not “Learning About _____” (a topic)

Unfortunately, most of our formal learning experiences, whether they’re in an academic or work-related setting, are structured around “learning about” a given topic. This usually consists of:

  • Inputs: lectures, videos, PPTs, readings, etc.
  • Outputs that demonstrate comprehension: quizzes, summaries, opinions about _____,

In this theoretical model, we learn to think about subjects and recall facts; we don’t learn to think like scientists, historians, digital marketers, etc. 

It’s broadly agreed that we should strive for more authentic learning experiences.

2. PBL is authentic, purposeful learning (For the purposes of this article, although Problem-Based Learning, Project-Based Learning, and Authentic Assessments each have unique characteristics, they are treated similarly)

For those of you unfamiliar with PBL, a few quick definitions should highlight the difference.

Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge. - PBL Works

Or, my personal favorite:

(PBL) is a teaching method in which complex real-world problems are used as the vehicle to promote student learning of concepts and principles as opposed to direct presentation of facts and concepts.

University of Ilinois, Champaign Urbana

The goal of the PBL experience is to place learners in the role of problem-solvers and solution creators. They don’t learn about chemistry or digital marketing; they apply their learning to create a solution for a given context/problem/situation.

  1. Design an experiment to find out whether _______

  2. Based on the best practices shared in Chapters 2-4, create a digital marketing campaign for your idea to in order to _____________.

One of the easiest ways to convert a unit from “learning about ____” to a more authentic experience is to follow the GRASPS framework, developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.

G - Goal

R - Role (of the learner)

A - Audience (for the product)

S - Situation

P - Product or Performance 

S - Standard(s) and Criteria for Success

Learning experiences like these give a clear purpose. It immediately answers the question: Why are we learning this?

OK. Then what is Interactive PBL?

Interactive PBL leverages the power of the Social Learning Theory, first developed by Albert Bandura. It stressed the importance that learning is a social experience. We make meaning from and with one another. We observe and construct our own meaning.

At first glance, this may seem to indicate that group work is an easy way to achieve the goal of social learning, but it is not that simple.

While I’m an advocate for group work and the collaborative skills it builds on many levels, the typical group processes do not necessarily foster social learning.

  1. If the goal is to engage with content and create a unique solution, group work tends to produce the safest solution. Individual voices can be under-represented. Unique ideas can be shut down quickly by others who don’t understand them. A specific direction is generally agreed upon early within the life of the group, and what follows is the compromised version of that initial direction (usually one person’s initial idea). The group works to develop that original idea, not the unique divergent idea(s) of each individual.

  2. This immediately disenfranchises some in the group. To some degree they’ve lost ownership of the idea; they may or may not fully contribute toward it. This does not mean the group’s idea isn’t better. It simply means the individual’s ownership and motivation has slightly decreased.

  3. Groups have a tendency to delegate, allowing each member to perform a specific role. This works well for efficiency (and hopefully fosters collaboration between members), but limits each learner's overall understanding of the full process.

  4. Each group member learns many social skills as a part of the group. This of course, is beneficial and valuable. But because the group gravitates towards one solution, each group member learns less about each member’s ideas related to the concept/problem. We don’t fully explore our own solution, carrying it through from conception to full design - and more fully recognizing the benefits and obstacles of our choice.

  5. Similarly, in most academic settings, we seldom see the thinking of how other groups have wrestled with the same concepts. In some cases, we may engage in a Gallary Walk or Science Fair exhibit. These are beneficial, of course. But they represent the finished product. The beauty of PBL is in the process - the struggle of identifying smaller problems and trying to tackle them along the way. Showcasing the final product is a good example of social learning for the product, but we miss out on all the social learning that exists from seeing “how others solved these challenges along the way."

"We make meaning from and with one another. We observe in order to construct our own meaning."

Interactive PBL recognizes that the key social learning learning moments occur as we go through the process. We see:

  • How did others approach this problem and answered key questions?

  • What resources did they consult?

  • What barriers did they confront?

  • What aspects of their process can be useful in my context?  

  • How can I learn to recognize gaps and missing elements along the way?

In short, PBL asks learners to be creators. Interactive PBL asks learners to be creators and simultaneous evaluators/adapters.

Advocates of PBL love it for the deep level thinking it fosters in each learner during the process of discovery. They know that this process is struggle. There is a clear goal but no clear pathway. And, it is the struggle of that process where we know the real learning occurs. 

Interactive PBL simply asks us to set up our learning environment to better capture the social learning that occurs during that process. With it, we allow learners unlock a deeper form of collaboration where learn from and with one another.


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