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PROBLEM BASED LEARNING:

An Instructional Model Based On Constructivist Learning

EUCLIDES – Enhancing the Use of Cooperative Learning to Increase Development of Science studies
134246-LLP-1-2007-IT-1-COMENIUS-CMP
Grant Agreement 2007-3434/001-001
This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use
which may be made of the information contained therein.
(Prof.ssa Floriana Falcinelli, SSIS, Università degli Studi di Perugia)
Graduate School of Specialization in Secondary Education, University of Perugia

In the Problem Based Learning process the student acquires knowledge by allowing a given
problem to act as a stimulus. In this way, the student is driven to discover the information
he or she needs to understand and face the very problem itself. This approach embraces
the idea that learning is a process in which the student takes an active role in building his or
her own knowledge. The student becomes the focal point and is given complete autonomy,
thus paving the way for him or her to become a learner who learns how to learn.

Problem Based Learning was initially practiced and implemented in 1960 at the McMaster
School of Medicine and Surgery, in Canada, with Karin Von Schilling. In 1976, H.S. Barrows
experimented and applied it at the Springfield School of Medicine and Surgery in the United
States. In Europe, it was experimented in The Netherlands in 1980, also in the School of
Medicine and Surgery, by Schimdt.

In setting up a Problem Based Learning framework, particular importance in given to the


teamwork of the teachers who must create an appropriate learning environment. This is
achieved by dividing the students into small groups and offering them situations that
function both as stimulus and problem which the students must tackle by following some
fundamental steps (the 7-step method) under the guidance and supervision of a tutor.

In order to confront a problem and come up with a possible solution, the group must: 1)
clarify the terms found within the problem through an accurate analysis; 2) establish how
much is known about the problem in order to lay the bases for solving it (what do we
know); 3) analyze its contents (define the problem); 4) identify the learning objectives
(what are the new things that have to be learned) in order to come up with the strategies
needed to arrive at the solution; 5) select the best solution and test it; 6) present and
perhaps be ready to defend the proposed solution; and 7) allow each participant to examine
and evaluate his or her own contribution and performance.

At this stage of the procedure, a lot of importance is given to group discussion and the
ability to negotiate and share with the other members the hypothetical solutions that have
been gathered within the group. In addition to this, the ability of each group member to
back up his or her own point of view with documentary evidence is equally important in that
it allows all of the group members to benefit from each others’ findings.

In Barrows’ model (see attached) students entering a medical course are divided into
groups of 5 and each group is assigned a facilitator. The students are then given a problem
in the form of a case study containing particular symptoms. The students must diagnose
the problem and come up with a possible treatment.

The students are unaware of what the problem is until they are presented with it. They
then discuss the problem, formulate hypotheses based on their experience and knowledge,
identify which elements are relevant in the problem and establish what the learning
objectives must be. These objectives are paramount to each of the aspects that are
deemed relevant in solving the problem that the group feels they do not understand as well
as they should. A training session is not considered complete until each student has been
given the opportunity to reflect upon his or her initial opinions regarding the diagnosis and
take responsibility for the particular learning objectives which had been established. There
are no pre-defined objectives; the objectives are established by the students based on their
analysis of the problem. After the training session, the students undertake a self-study
session. There are no assigned textbooks and, although the Department designates special
tutors the students can turn to and consult should they wish to do so, the students are
completely autonomous and free to choose the information they are looking for on their
own.

Problem Based Learning, therefore, calls into play all of the didactic strategies that are
centered on the student and are based upon the guided solution of real problems, which
falls well within the problem-solving approach. In an e-learning environment, the process
can be divided into different phases that are accompanied by the specific support of a tutor.
Formulating the problem is the first of these phases. Here, the tutor must present the
participants with a problematic situation and offer them the type of information that will
allow them to identify and define the problem. In fact, this first step requires that the
students examine the problem on the basis of the information available so they can draft
some possible solutions by using, for example, an apposite web forum or chat line.
Afterwards, each participant can gather the appropriate information individually by further
examining any available resources, comparing similar cases and, of course, turning to the
support of a tutor who will continue to be available for consultation. The problem is then re-
read based on the information that has been gathered. The hypotheses that were
previously drafted are reviewed and those that are deemed most suitable are chosen to
solve the problem. The participants compare each others’ findings as well as the case
studies and an abstraction process begins whereby different elements are linked together in
order to increment the usefulness of the information that has been gathered, even when
derived from diverse contexts. Lastly, a lessons learned session takes place wherein the
group reflects upon the entire experience in order to define the aspects that need
improvement.

It is especially important and relevant to rely on certain forms of collaboration among the
students; particularly, for example, on the use of cooperative learning.

The term cooperative learning refers to those work groups in which there is a high level of
reciprocity, exchange and interdependence among the participants; i.e., all the members
work on the same problem and the individual contributions of any one member are no
longer clearly definable in the final results or project. There is a constant exchange of
information, an alternating of activities, a sharing of resources, and an enhancement of the
skills of all the members so as to promote mutual benefit and foster the achievement of the
common goal (Johnson & Johnson, 1990).

Problem Based Learning falls well within the constructivist epistemology and its didactic
approach. Constructivism was first introduced in the 1980s and it was the result of a
coming together of various teachings: the cognitive component, which has expressed some
reservation regarding informational cognitive psychology (Bruner), combined with
epistemological cognitive psychology (Von Foerster, Von Glasersfeld, Bateson, Goodman),
pragmatism (Rorty), contextualism (Brown, Resnick), the theories of self-poiesis (Maturana
and Varela), the theory of complexity (Morin) and, without excluding of course, the
influences deriving from hermeneutics.

Nevertheless, what must be remembered is that the idea that knowledge is actively
constructed by the learner is widely present in 20th century psycho-pedagogical research
and teaching methodologies; so much so, that Dewey, Piaget and Vygotskji can be
considered constructivists.

In constructivist epistemology, learning is the result of an active construction whereby the


subject re-elaborates in a personal way the stimuli that come from his or her environment:
knowledge is the result of an active construction on the part of the subject, its nature is well
placed, it is anchored in a concrete context and it is exercised through particular forms of
social collaboration and negotiation.

According to J. Bruner learning is situated, distributed and significant: it implies the ability
to act in relation to a given context and to control one’s own mental activity. Learning is
reflective because it captures the connections among various pieces of information and the
meanings attributed to them. It does this in close relation to the culture and the system of
meanings existing within it. Learning is cooperative and it is distributed among the persons
who work together to solve the problem.

According to D.H. Jonassen learning is active, constructive, cooperative, intentional,


conversational, contextualized and reflective.

According to constructivist epistemology, and in particular to the current defined by social


constructivism, the acquisition of knowledge is achieved through multiple, complex and
interactive paths. This means that it is impossible to conceive a programming of curricula in
which we find pre-defined, standardized, linear and segmented phases that are guided by
the idea that knowledge is a more or less real representation of an ontological world that is
independent of the subject/knower.

In constructivism, reality, as we know it, is instead the result of the subjective construction
of the individuals and social groups who themselves become epistemic agents.

In the light of this, schools must present themselves as social contexts in which each
individual can follow a personalized itinerary. Learning environments must be set up in such
a way as to “allow students to work together and help one another in order to learn to use a
multiplicity of informative tools and resources in the common pursuit of the learning
objectives and problem solving activity,” (B.G. Wilson, 1996, p.5).

Therefore, situations must be created in which the student, through the exploration of
pursuable paths within a recursive and reticular process, can determine his or her own
itinerary. These are “paths that are enriched by moments of individual as well as collective
reflections; by heuristic questions; by willfully polysemous and open deliveries that the
student can confront on the basis of personal interests and learning strategies,” (M.
Colombo, A. Varani, 2008, p.14).
According to the logic of social constructivism, learning must have as its objective the
possibility of allowing the learner to develop awareness, responsibility and autonomy. This
can be achieved by creating cooperative learning environments in which practices of
comparison; discussion; argumentation; negotiation; sharing of meanings; distribution and
sharing of human, technological and material resources; and, the building of various levels
of self-awareness and identity are widespread.

Particular attention is given to the designing of the learning environments, which can also
be continuously restructured based on the evaluation and quality control of the learning
processes that have been created. The word environment here refers to a complex system
that includes a group of doers; a specific space and setting; operational timetables; rules
and obligations; activities and tasks; a set of tools and artificial materials; a system of
meanings; and, a combination of relationships, expectations and emotions.

The learning environment can be planned and designed according to the following
fundamental principals: a) to enhance the learning experience through the process of
knowledge building; b) to promote understanding through multiple perspectives; c) to foster
learning within realistic, relevant and significant contexts; d) to encourage autonomy and
self-expression; e) to make learning a social experience; f) to encourage the use of multiple
methods of classroom delivery; and g) to promote self-awareness.

Setting up a learning environment, therefore, means keeping several interactive elements


under control. Some of these can be negotiated and decided upon along with the students
in order to allow them to take part as principal players in the process. A combined decision
can be made, for example, regarding the spaces to be used; the times; the group of
“characters” and the relationships among them; the expectations; the ground rules; the
activities and tasks; and, the expected results.

A learning environment that is structured in this way becomes a place of knowledge-building


that adheres to a procedural logic which, having overcome the need to follow a pre-
established planning program, underscores the value of knowledge-gaining in situations that
are the result of social interaction and the complete use of the various resources that the
environment has to offer.

In this way, the social dimension of knowledge, the importance of the negotiating processes,
the sharing of the solutions to the problems presented, the constant confrontation and
integration between the students’ experiential world and the proposed didactic experiences
also attain value.

The teacher, therefore, becomes the one who prepares and organizes the environment,
stimulates, suggests, facilitates, guides, and aids the student’s learning process in
accordance with an open and flexible course design and planning that provides a constant
redefining, implementation and reorganization of the learning situations. The teacher is a
person who reflects constantly on the didactic activity and confronts himself with other
educators or members of the educational community who are willing to share their
experiences and together build a new teaching knowledge.

Through the teacher’s continually sustained act of scaffolding, the learning environment
fosters the development of the typical didactic sequence of the constructivist approach:

• motivation, guidance or orientation toward the problem, identification of the subject


area;
• problem based situation for which the students must, either individually or in groups,
render their ideas and ingenuous knowledge explicit and come up with hypothetical
solutions;
• re-designing of ideas through the knowledge of scientific materials, stimuli and
experiences which allow the students to get to know new elements, clarify and
deepen their already existing knowledge, evaluate and restructure their individual
thinking;
• application of the newly acquired knowledge to the problem that has been identified;
• critical analysis of the changes and transformations that are made with regard to the
initial ideas, including the activation of meta-cognitive procedures.

What confers meaning to the entire process are the disciplines, when these are understood
to mean epistemic forms; that is to say, tools for gaining knowledge of the world with its
own key concepts, languages and probing methods.

Of paramount importance is the search for the founding nuclei of a given discipline; that is
to say, those concepts that weave together the very discipline itself and have a structuring
and generating value for creating knowledge which allows us to recognize what we have
previously encountered and prefigure the meaning of a new context/content (M. Colombo- A
Varani, 2008, pp.15-16).

It must be stressed that faced with the complexity of the problems, “the traditional frontiers
among the disciplines blend together and the demarcations become less defined, thus giving
way to new abilities and fluid knowledge, trans-disciplinary paths and overlapping areas
(Bocchi e Ceruti, 2004 p. XII).

We must, therefore, build a complex thinking process in our students—one which can move
in a flexible and creative way, elaborate original solutions and share them with their peer-
group.

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