What is Problem-based Learning?
Problem based learning is a teaching strategy that places students at the center of their learning. Teachers become facilitators of learning in the classroom and not directors of instruction.
In a problem-based learning classroom, the teacher poses a problem to the class and allows students time to actively think, discover, and work collectively to find a solution to the problem. During this collaborative time, the teacher actively monitors the class by moving from table to table to question and assist students in their thought process. Some students may complete the problem accurately before others in the class. By actively monitoring the class, the teacher can quickly assess students that are ready to move on and allow them to continue to the next question or problem, thus keeping the entire class engaged throughout the lesson. Once an ample amount of time has passed, the teacher then brings the class together as a whole group to discuss the pathways various students took to solve the problem. The teacher should also debrief the problem by going over the key points and vocabulary, allowing all students to obtain solid notes on the question.
So, how does this type of teaching benefit students of Desoto County?
Using a problem-based learning technique has many advantages to the traditional teaching model.
- It can be more effective than simple memorization.
When teachers teach all lessons by having students memorize given steps to solve problems, do students ever get confused about what to do next? Absolutely! When there is no meaning given to a lesson, students often wonder, “When am I ever going to use this?” and become frustrated when they forget the steps the teacher displayed in class. Parents become frustrated as well when trying to assist their child at home because they are commonly told, “But that’s not the way the teacher did it”. In a problem-based mathematics class, teachers focus on allowing students to use methods of their own choice to explain and work through complex questions. The key here is posing good, solid questions for the student to think through and apply their thought processes. One student may choose to use the traditional or standard algorithm to get to an answer, while another student who is more visual, may choose to draw a table or picture to think through the problem and arrive at the answer. Both pathways are acceptable, as long as the mathematics in the work is accurate and the correct answer is achieved.
- It fosters collaboration.
Collaboration is essential to success in the workplace and life. Forbes Magazine published an article titled “The 10 Skills Employers Most Want in 20-Something Employees.” Topping the list was the ability to work in a team. Many secondary math teachers in Desoto County choose to arrange their classrooms in teams. Although this is not a requirement, many teachers have found value in allowing students to talk out and collaborate on complex math problems.
- Increased critical thinking skills
The second skill employers most notably stated they seek is the ability to make decisions and solve problems. In other words, employers want someone that can think critically and not simply memorize or regurgitate information. Each day in math classes, students are pushed to think through given scenarios and communicate their findings with others.
What are some of the concerns with Problem-based learning, and how is Desoto County Schools working with these concerns?
- Some students don’t work well in teams.
Teams are not mandated in Desoto County math classrooms. The arrangement of a classroom is a reflection of a teacher’s personality and teaching style, as it should be. There are many math teachers in our district that have straight rows or partnerships in their classrooms rather than teams of 4. In classrooms where the teacher prefers to be set up in teams, there are ways to allow a student who works better individually to be pulled away from a team setting.
- Teachers need continual support and professional development.
Over the past three years, Desoto County Schools has provided over 150 hours of teacher training to each group of math teachers, sixth grade through Algebra II. Additionally, the district has held over 20 Math Parent Nights in all 8 zones for the community. Each year, the training provided is based upon teacher and community feedback.
- There are some math skills that require simple memorization and regular practice.
Desoto County teachers recognize the need for students to have repetitive practice of skills as well as the need for memorization of basic facts. Teachers are provided supplemental lessons to the textbook that incorporate these needs. Ultimately, teachers have the full autonomy to adjust their plans to fit the needs of their students. If they feel the lesson provided in the textbook will not achieve the wanted results, teachers may pull from other resources to teach the lesson. Some teachers even provide weekly skill sheets for students to practice or basic fact drills to ensure memorization. Lessons and tests are also developed in a “looping” manner, meaning after a skill is taught in class, the skill may show back up repetitively to ensure the student retains the knowledge rather than forgetting it over time.