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January 3, 2023

Problem-Based Learning: Ideas to Spark Your Creativity

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By Barbara R. Blackburn, Abbigail J. Armstrong and Melissa Miles

Do you remember doing projects when you were a student? We do. Our teachers typically assigned everyone a standard project; we completed them and turned them in and then received a grade. It wasn’t very rigorous. Problem-based learning activities are more rigorous than a standard project, in part because more responsibility and ownership are shifted to students. Additionally, problem-based learning usually requires a more advanced level of thinking. Let’s look at some samples that can spark your own ideas, and then review some resources for more information.

Social Studies Problem-Based Learning

The city is in danger. The mayor has moved, and everything has shut down! We have been asked to design a plan to get the city up and running. Think about all the critical roles we’ve discussed in creating an effective community. In your small groups, complete research and determine how you would propose we help out as efficiently as possible. Justify your ideas with textual evidence and logical reasoning. Your final product will be a persuasive visual presentation—using chart paper, PowerPoint, poster board, handouts, etc.—that outlines your proposal with information about the trip(s) and pictures, graphs, maps, etc.

In the problem-based learning assignment, students are informed about a problem that exists in their own community. They must decide how to research and gather evidence related to this issue as well as ideas for improving it. Finally, they must propose their own solution and steps to accomplish it and present it to a committee of adults. This problem uses a real-life scenario as a catalyst for further student-driven learning.

English/Language Arts Problem-Based Learning

Our class has no field trips planned this year. Given the units we will be studying, think about the opportunities around our city and state that could make learning come to life for us. You could choose a location or a series of locations. In your small group, develop a research plan for discovering what our area has to offer. Be creative and think outside the box. Be sure to answer the following questions in your field trip proposal: What would we do on this trip? What/who would we see? How would it be an extension of our learning? Write a short persuasive letter or speech to convince the principal that our class would benefit greatly from going on the field trip you are proposing. Justify your ideas by referring to the goals for our units and the added value of an out-of-class experience.

Here, the task is inspired by the students’ desire to take field trips. Then, it is linked to persuasive writing. Students drive the topic. Although general guidelines are provided, the students will determine how they will research and present the topic.

Science Problem-Based Learning

Choose a specific issue relating to changes in the Earth’s environment such as the greenhouse effect or the sun’s effect on Earth. Create a question related to the issue, then create and complete an activity or experiment to answer your questions.

In the science sample, we are using problem-based learning to move students to a higher level of rigor, one in which they must design their own experiments rather than complete one we provide.

Math Problem-Based Learning

Students choose an issue related to theme parks that may need to be addressed. This could include having a friend in a wheelchair, ensuring safety for younger children, creating a special space for grandparents or accommodating service animals. Keep in mind that if these accommodations are already in place, students should evaluate their effectiveness and suggest any changes.

Finally, for a math problem, students must use their knowledge, such as knowledge of geometry, to solve a problem related to amusement parks. It’s a great way to synthesize information from a grading period or a year.

In what follows, we’ve provided additional resources on problem-based learning. Remember, check the information to be sure it moves beyond simple projects so that the level of rigor in your assignments increases.

Resources for Project-Based and Problem-Based Learning

Buck Institute for Education
www.bie.org/about/what_pbl
Project-based learning resources for teachers such as blogs, videos and links to resources for projects

Edutopia
https://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning
Tips for using project-based learning in math and other articles such as one on increasing student engagement with project-based learning

TeachThought
https://www.teachthought.com/category/project-based-learning/
Examples of project-based learning activities, how to avoid pitfalls of PBL and ideas for differentiating project-based learning

www.cultofpedagogy.com/project-based-learning/
Tried-and-true PBL ideas from an educator’s perspective

Problem-Based Learning: Six Steps to Design, Implement, and Assess, Vincent R. Genareo, Ph.D., and Renee Lyons, Faculty Focus

Practical PBL Series: Design an Instructional Unit in Seven Phases, Amber Graeber, Edutopia

A Final Note

Problem-based learning can enhance the rigor of your classroom by encouraging critical thinking. Looking at these sample ideas as well as the other resources provided here can help you create your own plans.

About the Authors

Abbigail Armstrong, Ed.D.

Abbigail Armstrong, Ed.D., co-author of the  books, Rigor in the K-5 Math and Science Classroom and Rigor in the 6-12 Math and Science Classroom is an Associate Professor of Education at Winthrop Education.  A former classroom teacher, Armstrong focuses her work on meeting the needs of all students, especially those from a poverty background and gifted students. She also works with teachers in the areas of resilience and student motivation. Her workshops focus on applying the depth of information she provides.

Melissa Miles

Melissa Miles, co-author of the books, Rigor in the K-5 Language Arts and Social Studies Classroom and Rigor in the 6-12 Language Arts and Social Studies Classroom, is currently back in the classroom teaching middle school language arts. She has eighteen years of classroom teaching experience in grades 5-8.  She is also credentialed as a National Board-Certified teacher for young adolescents, works as a SpringBoard Curriculum consultant to College Board.  Her workshops are filled with humor, practical content and a focus on student ownership of learning. 

Barbara Blackburn

As a teacher, a leader and a university professor responsible for graduate training for educators, Barbara Blackburn has used her knowledge and experiences to write over 25 best-selling books. She utilizes the engagement she advocates there to capture and instill in nationwide audiences the desire to aggressively institute constructive change. Read her articles for teachers or leaders, browse the other free resources and review possible solutions to your challenges as well as the testimonials of those who have experienced the difference she made in their schools scattered throughout the site, then contact Barbara. She’ll listen to your goals and work with you to design a customized and self-reinforcing program that will impress your educators and leaders alike.

View Her Profile
Barbara Blackburn

As a teacher, a leader and a university professor responsible for graduate training for educators, Barbara Blackburn has used her knowledge and experiences to write over 25 best-selling books.

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