The Problem with PBL

A cross-post from Teach Paperless

Every time I've visited an educational conference in the last few years, the big buzzword (is an acronym a word?) is PBL. I have heard to definitions of the PBL acronym: Problem-based and Project-based (or Product-based). I'm not sure why it's not PL, because of the hyphenation, but I won't ask. Either way, it is presented as a fix-all for education.

I like the PBL framework. However, I see a subtle danger in pushing PBL as something that should be happening in every classroom with every student all the time. Most often, the reason behind this is that in "the real world" we learn through inquiry, problem-solving and projects.

I don't deny the validity of that argument. However, in the real world (and in the magical world, too - folks still learn in Narnia), we learn in ways that go beyond the PBL approach.

Take inquiry. Life doesn't always begin with my own questions. Sometimes someone asks me a question and the motive is external. Sometimes epiphanies happen. Sometimes I learn through something that is not a question at all - just an observation or an explanation. Sometimes I start with an answer and then question it later, as I intuitively create something new.

Sometimes life isn't a problem to be solved. There's a place for nuance and paradox and the recognition that we don't have all the answers. I ran into this a few years back when I had a Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process PBL. In the end, a student approached me and said, "I read about fatalism and the history of that area. What if peace isn't possible? What if there isn't a solution? More importantly, what if it's not our job, as Americans, to solve the problem?" We should have looked at the human element, at the conflict and the culture without treating it as a problem to be solved.

In the real world, learning isn't always a product or a project. Sometimes it's a conversation over a pint or a cognitive process in a time of distress. Sometimes it's a Google search when something sparks my curiosity. Sometimes it's a metaphor as I watch a baseball game. Or it's a tweet. Or a hike. Or a profound way in which a song speaks to the human condition.

I am not against PBL. I see it as a vital part of authentic learning. However, as amazing as it is, it still remains a part rather than the solution to a holistic education.


John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard
and the co-founder of Write About .

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