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Problem Based Learning

Connecting gifted & talented children and youth to opportunities, resources, and recognition

Problem-Based Learning: A Promising Strategy for Gifted Students
by Barbara Swicord, Ed.D.
President, Summer Institute for the Gifted

Educators in the 21st Century face a daunting set of challenges in the classroom. There is increasing pressure to motivate unengaged students, to deal with a wide range of talent, ability, learning styles, and diversity, and to integrate state and national standards into a crowded curriculum. Add to these problems additional stress created by funding shortfalls, teacher burnout, and the politics of community relations and it is no wonder that educators experience recurring personal and professional frustrations.

While not a panacea, problem-based learning is providing answers for many of these challenging areas. PBL (sometimes also referred to as project-based learning) can motivate students through the use of real and authentic problems. It can challenge students of varying ability levels and interests to tackle aspects of a selected problem that are appropriate to them, and can cover multiple interdisciplinary objectives in a single scenario. In addition, in-class modifications can support meager specialized programs in times of budget crunch. Self-motivated students and exciting curriculum can energize teachers, and involving students in real problems in the community can create positive relationships with parents and community members.

PBL has the potential to impact today in a positive manner the many difficulties facing American classrooms. The rest of this discussion will focus on just one of these positive areas, that of providing an appropriately challenging learning environment for highly capable students. While PBL can motivate and engage students of all ability levels, it is an elegant way to facilitate the characteristics of gifted education that can be difficult for teachers to infuse in their classrooms using more traditional methods.

It is helpful to look first at the characteristics of Problem Based Learning. While there are many ways to implement Problem Based Learning, all PBL methods have some common characteristics. There is always a direct connection to the curriculum and the curriculum is inherently interdisciplinary. The content focuses on questions or problems that the students must grapple with in order to discern the meaning of the curriculum concepts. There is a constructivist environment in that students are building the knowledge they need in order to solve the problem or answer the questions. Students are self-directed to a significant degree in their pursuit of the problem resolution, and the problems are always based in real or authentic scenarios. The problems are incomplete in that students are not given all the information they need in order to solve the problem. Students may redefine the problem as they research it and the process will likely take longer than traditional school problems or units would take to resolve.

Why is this method a good teaching strategy for gifted students? Aside from the obvious motivational characteristics of working with authentic problems in an environment that nurtures independence, self-selection of topics, and an emphasis on professional products, gifted students exhibit qualities often associated with expert problem solvers, making PBL a natural methodology for them. Expert problem solvers have broad knowledge bases; gifted students acquire information quickly. Experts look for the deep structure of a problem; gifted students demonstrate this kind of conceptual learning at an early age. Experts have many skills in their repertoire and use them flexibly; gifted students learn to carefully select problem-solving strategies as they work through problems. Expert problem solvers monitor their problem-solving processes while gifted students spontaneously use metacognitive skills and show early recognition that many questions have more than one right answer. In addition to the skills of problem solving, PBL also appeals to gifted students because the content is conceptual, the pace is appropriate because so much of it is self-directed, and they can regroup within the larger group with students who want to pursue similar aspects of the overall problem.

When setting up a problem scenario for a gifted student, the teacher must make sure that the content is advanced and that the problem deals with complex concepts. The teacher must be careful to point out connections among disciplines related to the topic. The students should gain practice in good reasoning, in forming habits of mind within the disciplines used, and in improving skills of self-direction. They should also have the chance to discuss conflicting ethical perspectives surrounding the topic. As an example, a middle school problem about using genetically engineered products in fast food restaurants would deal with science curriculum regarding genetics that might not have been covered in the traditional curriculum at that point. The teacher might need to point out relationships between genetic engineering in plants as well as in humans and the problem might also include a discussion regarding religious beliefs in various cultures. Such a problem might involve a study of how geneticists work. Students might create a plan for a series of experiments that they feel are needed in order to resolve the issue. They might also take on the roles of farmers, scientists, consumers, media reporters, or businesspersons in order to view the problem from the various perspectives of stakeholders in such a problem. These suggestions all relate to the types of characteristics of PBL that are important to consider when setting up a problem for highly capable students. It is also important to note that such a problem will cover many curriculum standards related to science, social studies, technology, language arts, health, and math. Depending on the activities that are designed and the products that are created by students, this problem could also cover standards within the creative and performing arts and world languages.

So many wide-ranging objectives can be achieved by employing PBL in the classroom that educators should be encouraged to try it if they have not already. In order to be successful, teachers should pay attention to a few helpful hints. It may be important to start slowly, using small, directed problem scenarios that are designed for the readiness level of independence and collaboration of the students in the class or group. It is critical to plan well and to cover the basic information that will be needed in the problem first. The content should drive the activity; the activity should not drive the content. Remember that the depth of the learning is more valuable than covering a lot of content. Make sure the activities are engaging, thought provoking, and authentic. When assessing students, use a rubric that clearly defines what high quality is and do not emphasize aspects of the products that are not germane to the objective of the problem. Enjoy your new role as facilitator and guide!

When the going gets tough, and it could in the beginning, teachers should be reminded that research on PBL, though still scarce, is showing positive results that hold promise for gifted students as well as all students. Students using PBL perform as well on standardized tests and often better than students in traditional classrooms. Students using PBL learn research skills, understand the subject matter at a deeper level than students taught by traditional methods, and are more deeply engaged in their work. Also important is the finding that teachers and parents of students learning by doing projects are pleased about students’ enthusiasm and hard work when they are doing PBL.

For educators who are looking for a solution to many problems in the classrooms as well as a way to meet the needs of gifted students, Problem Based Learning is a great place to start. More and more resources are becoming available in the form of printed professional materials as well as Internet websites to support novice PBL-ers. Online resources include the George Lucas Educational Foundation (www.edutopia.org), Project-Based Learning with Multimedia CD-ROM at www.wested.org/cs/we/print/docs/we/home.htm, and What Kids Can Do (www.whatkidscando.org). Many other websites exist as well to support parents and teachers in sample problems and tutorials on PBL. After a short introduction to PBL, educators can easily create their own problem scenarios based on their knowledge of their curriculum content, the interests and abilities of their students, and their own blossoming creativity. With careful planning, a well-designed problem, and the enthusiasm of students and teachers, problem based learning can be a great boost to a teacher’s professional satisfaction while creating future citizens who are well-prepared for the complex tasks and problems they will face as adults.