Book Report


by Linda Torp and Sara Sage

Report presented to

Dr. R. Ghusayni

American University of Beirut


Nisreen Dandashly

April 2001


Most of us are familiar with teaching models in which we first learn identified content and processes through lecture, direct instruction, and guided discovery. Then we apply this new learning in well-structured situations, problem sets, and forced response items designed to see if we understand or have mastered what we were taught. Since the days of Socrates and the teaching paradigm, with a teach, learn, and apply sequence, has been the standard of our schools. With the fast development of science and technology, a different view of education was indispensable to cope with the recommendations of the century. With the development of the constructive theory of learning, the learning paradigm started to change and roles started to be switched. For the teacher now facilitates the learning process, but it is the student who actively constructs knowledge.

Problem based learning (PBL) may be one of the best exemplars of constructivist learning environment. For its mode of implementation, with the role the teacher and student have in it, is derived from the philosophy of constructivism. PBL refocuses our practice to what some call the teaching learning paradigm. PBL confronts students with a messy, ill-structured situation were they assume the role of stakeholder or owner of this situation. They identify the real problem and learn whatever is necessary to arrive at a viable solution through investigation. This creates a learning environment in which teacherís coach student thinking and guide studentís inquiry facilitating deeper levels of understanding. But where did this learning strategy originate? This form of experiential education, that follows a constructive philosophy, originated in the 1960ís at the medical school of Macaster University, Canada. Its successful results made it spread in many of the medical schools in Canada & the States, until it moved in the 1990ís to be implemented in school settings from k-12 education.

Let us before moving into the details of this programís planning and implementation, stop at its essential elements. Although PBL can be presented in different formats, it should never miss one of the following parameters. First, the problematic situation should be presented first to serve as the organizing center and context of learning. This problematic situation should be ill structured and messy, changes with addition of new information, is not solved easily with a specific formula, and doesnít result in one right answer. Second, students should act as the active problem solvers and learners, while teachers act as cognitive and metacognitive coaches. Moreover, although information is shared, the learner actively constructs knowledge. Third, assessment is an authentic compassion to the problem and processes. Finally, a PBL unit is not necessarily inter- disciplinary but it is always integrative.

Since now we are familiar with the essential elements of PBL let us move to one of the most important elements in the teaching process, which is planning. And since PBL is considered as a learning adventure, it requires more work by the teacher, who should plan carefully and design activities to make it a successful adventure. Notice that during the planning process, teachers should never be limited to the textbook. They should gather an abundance of information from the community, the library, the Internet, and available experts. Thus after choosing the problematic topic to center the PBL around, teachers should specify the learning outcomes to serve as their beacon during the running of the problem. Once they decided on the outcomes, they choose a problematic situation and identify the studentís role in that situation. Let us say that the problem was an uncontrolled increase in the insect population in a certain villageÖ Students may act as environmentalists, citizens, or local politicians. Thus the challenge is to select a role in which the students will gain a full understanding of the problem and its complexity. Not only this, the role should arose their interest and allow them to take an active role in the situation. Note that these roles play a very important role in personalizing learning and giving students ownership of the problem. But this is not the whole story, for teachers should figure out how students are going to meet this problem. This doesnít mean that the teacher will tell the students how to solve the problem. She will guide them to the doors that once open their problem will be solved. Thus she may provide them with a document, phone message, video clip, and so on. The teacher should develop the anticipated problem statement. This statement is the key feature that helps the teacher shape the design elements into a coherent plan for instruction.

Now that teachers are clear about the role or stakeholder position that students will take on as they immerse themselves in the problematic situation and they have anticipated the role the root problem will identify, the teachers are ready to decide how theyíll bring their inquiry to close. The final performance should provide an opportunity for authentic assessment of learners thinking. Proposal papers, action plans, patient consultation, preparing and emergency information pamphlets and making presentations at a school board meeting can all be forms of assessment depending on the role of the stakeholder. It is the teacherís role to choose the form or the combination of forms that best assess for studentís understanding. Thus, now the teachers have a clear image on what they want to do, they should move forward towards implementing this problem-based experience in the classroom.

The first step teachers should do is to prepare their students to the problem based learning experience. The form of support may take different forms depending on such variables such as the age of the learners, their interests and background, and the nature of the problem. One area to avoid when preparing students is teaching the content of the problem before getting started. PBL is distinguished from other types of experiential education because students learn the content and skills in coarse of solving the problem. The appropriate amount and type of preparation-Whether touching on content or process encountered in the problem must be determined based on the needs and experiences of the students. Students who encountered PBL before may not need to be prepared before starting. For example, for teachers to prepare their students to the mosquito problem we mentioned before, they may let them watch a brief video clip from the movie Apollo 13 in which the astronauts encounter the problem of the explosion in the rocketís oxygen tank. After this the teacher gives the students a messy ill-structured problem. After the students are immersed in the ill structured problematic situation, which requires inquiry, information gathering, and reflection, the teacher supports them to develop a personal stake in the problem and motivate them to want to solve it. Moreover, the teacher can design the problem in a number of ways to engage or hook students. One way teachers often use is giving an authentic-looking letter or document in their role in the problem. Teachers have also designed brief dramatic skills to introduce a problem. For example, two high school students may act out an argument that escalates into abuse to introduce middle school students (now genetic consultants) to a problem dealing with the possible genetic causes of aggression.

After this, the teacher should help students figure out what they know, what they need to know, and what ideas they have about the situation. Teachers coach students to probe what students know and activate learnerís prior knowledge about the problematic situation. Students document this information on a "know" charter paper. The "need to knows" are issues the students believe are critical to finding out more about the problem. These are recorded with Studentís "ideas" that aid in locating information to solve the problem. After this, they start gathering and sharing information among the other class members on their team. This activity enables all to gain a holistic understanding of the problem. Coaching students to come to a clear statement of what they believe to be the central issue of the problem, along with a list of several conditions that need to be satisfied for a good solution, is essential. Motivated by their inquiry, students become self-directed learners, who generate several possible solutions and identify the one that best fits.

With appropriate coaching, students discuss an emerging picture of the real problem several times before generating solutions that they would record in a decision-making matrix. After developing the solutions, students evaluate them in light of the problem statementís central issue and identified conditions. Once students select the solution that fits best, they prepare to present their findings. They may choose to share the problem and their solution by using concept maps, charts, graphs, proposals, position papers, memos, maps, models, videos, or a home page on the world wide web- whatever is authentic to their role and situation. Teachers often arrange for outside experts whom students have consulted or others knowledgeable about the problem issues to serve on the panel to assess recommendations and challenge assumptions when students present their solutions. By this students discuss with experts, teachers, and with each other what they found. Thus students question one another, consider comments and things they missed, and correct incorrect information. Often most studentsí learning occurs through this step.

Research conducted to assess the effectiveness of PBL programs cites certain benefits including increased motivation, sustained self directed learning behaviors, long term knowledge retention, comparable content coverage with traditional approaches, learning for understanding, and the development of professional reasoning strategies. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to "learn how to learn, working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage student curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources. Thus, all of these make PBL an attractive strategy for preparing our students for the future.


During my teaching trip in Saudi Arabia, I was faced with many problems, but the most severe one was the boredom of my high school students and their lack of interest in anything academic they were exposed to. One of my students told me once:" we are paying money to sleep in classes, every thing we are studying is hard and is not related to our real life. Once we are outside the classroom and the academic year is over, we canít remember any of the facts that our teachers try to compress into our brain". When I thought deeply of what my student said, I asked my self: How many times as high school student I used to escape from the social studies classroom or the history of Arabic science, from the boredom I suffered from? How many times I couldnít escape from the sleeping power that controlled me in the biology classroom? The stories never end, and forgetting material never stops, although I was an A student!

In a century where knowledge is advancing in a tremendous speed, can we keep the old methods were the teacher talks, the students learn, and learning for understanding never occurs? This is unacceptable, we should all rebel against some of the methods that were used in teaching by stopping to use them. The paradigm of, teachers teach, students learn, should shift gradually towards teachers acting as cognitive coaches, and the students build or construct knowledge. This is Constructivism, and I believe itís our hope to change education from a passive tool to an active tool that will aid our students to cope with the recommendations of the century. When I read the book, the idea of PBL shaped all the scattered creative ideas of teaching that were swimming in my mind into a clear, systematic method of helping students construct knowledge in a meaningful way.

Tell you the truth, Iím a graduate student, and I never feel so motivated in the learning processes as when Iím faced with a problem, presented in a story form, and my professor asks me to take an active role in solving it. So how it would be in the case of school students? The power of story attraction was supported by research to be an excellent tool to raise studentsí motivation. Not only this, PBL exposes solid, demanding content, engages students of an emotional level, and fosters skills needed in a complex world. It is a curriculum organizer and instructional strategy that can be implemented whenever learning goals demand deeper understanding. I believe that PBL is a powerful technique that all teachers should have in their repertoire to the 21st century. But here the question that popped into my mind: Can teachers in the Lebanese or Gulf schools often apply PBL as a teaching strategy?

Let me tell you my story and the story of my colleagues before letting you conclude the answer. As a teacher in one of the best schools in Saudi Arabia, and in one of the good schools in Lebanon, I had 27 teaching hours per week, I was teaching 7 classes with a sum of 260 students, I was teaching biology, physics, and chemistry. This is not only my case, but also the case of most of the teachers in the schools I taught in. Can a teacher with such a heavy load afford the time needed to plan for PBL? For PBL requires planning and teachersí preparation more than any teaching strategy. This is for the planning time, and the question that strikes our mind here, can teachers who never heard except of the subject matter they are teaching act as cognitive coaches? For other than teachers in few of the highly esteemed schools, many of the teachers in many of the schools in Lebanon and the Gulf area donít have a T.D. This is a fact that shocked me. For in the schools I taught in Saudi Arabia and in Lebanon, and many other schools that I held workshops in, have teachers who never heard of constructivism. Thus can teachers with mentalities imprisoned in the old teaching paradigm and who never heard of the word constructivism act as successful cognitive coaches?

Let us suppose for a while that we have well trained teachers, who are creative enough, and well trained to apply PBL; would the administration of the school that is following a strict disciplinary curriculum allow them to do so? And even if they did, does the limited time teachers have to finish a bulky curriculum, allow them to do so? For teachers in our schools are busy bees, struggling to finish the heavy curriculum. For administrators and parents care about whether the teachers finish the book and the grade average of the students is high. They consider tests and their grades the basic and most important forms of assessment. Thus if a teacher applies problem based learning she will be blamed for not using any forms of assessment, for the authentic embedded assessment used are not approved of neither by the administration, nor by parents, and even by many teachers in the school. For everyone cares for the bunch of material covered and never to whether the students understood the material deeply or no.

You may tell me the one who reads your critique would take a negative view about schools in the gulf area and in Lebanon, and that is not true. Here I want to say something no doubt some schools in the gulf area and in Lebanon are using modern teaching methods, value creativity, and have highly qualified teacher, but this is not the case in the majority of the schools. Moreover, all of the schools and the teachers are bound with a bulky disciplinary curriculum that is eating their time up and imprisoning their creativity.

This is as far as applying PBL in the Lebanese & gulf schools, in general. As for PBL as a teaching strategy, I donít agree with the authors of the book that PBL could be applied as early as grade 1. I think students should have a solid base of knowledge before being placed in a puzzling situation. I want also to add, that applying PBL in classrooms with a large number of students is very hard even for highly qualified teachers. For coaching is not as easy as direct instruction, for if the number of students is large the teacher canít observe & assess in a hidden manner the learning practice that is taking place.

As for the book itself, I want to confess that as a constructivist, the bookís teaching strategy, PBL, is an excellent strategy for preparing successful citizens for the 21st century. The examples the authors provided were of high quality & clarified the idea. However the sequence of chapters were not convincing. For the author gives examples about PBL and research results about its success, before telling us what PBL is. In addition to this, the book has a lot of repetition. For chapter 4 is the repetition of chapter 2, but in different words.

At the end, I hope that the educational system in the Arab world will have a real reform that will prepare our youth to be successful citizens of the 21st century. I hope that we are not bound as teachers by norms, disciplines, and busy schedules, but with one basic aim, which is teaching for understanding. I hope that our administrators & our teachers are knowledgeable enough to use more than one teaching strategy, including PBL, depending on the ideas we want to teach & the level of our students. We need to be flexible to blend teaching strategies to achieve our basic goal: TEACHING FOR UNDERSTANDING.

Page created on April 6, 2001 | Last updated on April 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Nisreen Dandashly & Nada AbiSamra
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