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  • Writer's pictureThings Education

The problem with PBL/IBL…

…and how to solve it.

Hello and welcome to the 39th edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.

We have written about inquiry classrooms and project-based learning pedagogies earlier, and we have covered how one can transition into inquiry classrooms from more traditional ways of teaching and how project-based learning can be leveraged to enhance motivation of the students. Today, we write about a fundamental issue with inquiry classroom or project-based learning classrooms or any pedagogy that wants science students to work like scientists, history students to work like historians and so on.

Especially with science teachers, once they are convinced that project-based learning or inquiry learning is the way forward, we want students to do what scientists do. So let’s start with what do scientists do. Scientists observe, explore, read existing literature, make assumptions, build hypotheses, design experiments, collect data, analyse data, infer from data, and make conclusions, publish their results, and have them evaluated by other scientists. And if needed, they re-evaluate their hypotheses, and the circle goes on. And in classrooms, teachers want their students to do the same. Students can also follow the above ‘process of science’.

However, there is one major difference between scientists and students. Scientists are experts in their fields. They have in-depth knowledge of the nuances of their area of expertise. They have an ‘intuitive’ understanding of their field. On the other hand, students are novices. They are learning science. They are also learning basic scientific phenomena.

Scientists or experts in any field have in-depth background knowledge of the subject, that is, there is a lot of information about the subject stored in their long-term memory. Due to this, experts are quickly able to access this knowledge whenever they need to, without much effort, because they use this knowledge regularly. Another trait of experts is that they can abstract their knowledge or transfer their knowledge from once situation to another and go beyond surface structures of a problem and see the deep functional structures.

Let’s take an example to understand this.

The solution to this problem is to shine the low-intensity radiation from different sides of the body and ensure that all the rays of low-intensity radiation merge on the tumour. So the tumour experiences the high-intensity and is killed off, while the low-intensity radiation does not affect the healthy tissue around it.

Here is another problem.

If you notice, the surface details of the problem are very different. The context is very different. At the same time, the deeper functional structure of the problem is the same. And hence, the solution is also similar. The army needs to use all the roads around the fort to walk in small groups, so that the entire army reaches the fort at the same time. You can read more about deep and surface structures in one of our earlier editions.

The digression into the example was to make the point that an expert in a particular field can see the similarities between two problems that are similar on the surface, while a novice will not. This is because an expert has extensive background knowledge, can recall the background knowledge when needed, can understand deeper functional similarities, and can apply this knowledge in various functionally similar situations. All of this makes experts have an ‘intuitive’ understanding of their area of expertise.

On the other hand, students of science are learning science – the phenomena, the nature of science and the process of science. So their background knowledge is still developing and is nowhere near the level of an expert. The background knowledge has not been embedded in their long-term memory, and so recalling this knowledge is also not easy for the students.

Okay, so students are novices and not experts. What does that mean for classroom teaching? What does it specifically mean for IBL and PBL pedagogies? The first rule of thumb is to ensure that any inquiry or project that is planned must be planned while ensuring that students should be able to comprehend the topic and not create some new knowledge in the topic. For example, I can have an inquiry into the value of acceleration due to gravity (an established scientific phenomenon), but there is no point getting students to predict the magnitude of gravitational force on different planets right at the beginning of the lesson on gravity. This may be useful as an assessment to check students’ understanding towards the end of the lesson.

The student learning outcomes should focus on students understanding the science or the scientific phenomenon and not looking for a new discovery. The outcomes should focus on students learning problem-solving skills and not on solving real-world problems. The outcomes should focus on building critical thinking skills and not creating new scientific knowledge. The outcomes should focus on students understanding the process and nature of science and not creating a new process or trying to change it. The outcomes should focus on landmark findings in the subject and not on creating a landmark finding. The outcomes should focus on students understanding that science is a process of refining knowledge based on evidence and not on challenging existing scientific phenomena. In short, the outcomes should focus on aspects of science which will help a novice build their understanding of the phenomena, process and nature of science. Because unlike an expert, the students are still building their understanding and skills.

All of this has a slightly tangential, but pertinent point for the teachers, and what is expected of teachers of science or any other discipline. While we cannot expect teachers to have the type of knowledge that experts of each field have, it is important that teachers understand their discipline deeply. It is not just the knowledge of their discipline that is important, but also an understanding of the nature of their discipline and the history of their discipline. If not, it is apparent that a teacher cannot engage deeply in inquiry or projects that need to be at the core of the discipline.

In conclusion, whether it is IBL or PBL or traditional methods, the learning outcomes remain the same. Help novice students to gain expertise in the subject. And for this the teachers need to have a deep understanding of the subject – knowledge and the nature of it.


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Edition: 2.13

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