Problem Based Learning

I don't get problem based learning. My secret is out.

I understand why it works. It presents a question. We love to answer questions. It's 10 times more interesting. It's not lecture. It's more concrete. It's more relevant.

I get that.

What I don't get is how to create them. How do you develop a problem that includes those layers of math? How do they problem solve without knowing what to do?

If I don't know how to do something, I'll google it, twitter it, and ask people about it.

But what if they're wrong? Just because I have answers doesn't mean they're right. Even if students do find answers, how do they know the answers are right? What if they don't know where to find the answers from in the first place?

My biggest fear is that I won't know how to solve it or I'll help to reinforce the wrong way.

I guess I need to learn more or see this in action to really understand how it is developed and implemented.

Furthermore, do students who learn through problem based curriculums score well or better on standardized tests? How can the curriculum be developed to cover all necessary objectives without weird gaps or leaving things out?

It's obviously more practical because life doesn't come at you in the form of standardized tests but in the form of problems. And in life, problems don't come with instructions on how to solve and don't always end in a prim and proper way.

Life is complex and messy and consists of problem solving with trial and error. While I would love my math class to be described in the same way, I would have no idea how to start. How do you assess? How much help do you give the students? How much scaffolding and guidance do they need? Are problem based curriculums implemented individually, cooperatively, or a combination of both?

One of my students stated it simply, "Math is a beast."

And to me, problem based learning is the dragon.


  1. Elissa, I like your honest approach to things. Despite its unchallenged value and potential, problem-based learning is indeed not always easy to implement in the classroom. - I adore Chris Lehmann when he talks about the Third World Project he got his students involved in, but I guess it's not feasible to provide such a niveau throughout a school year - there needs to be time for "the basics" which are not always applicable in problem-based contexts... for my part, I try to add project-like tasks in my classes as often as I can, and try not to be crushed when it doesn't work out (for whatever reason, mostly lack of planning time)...

  2. I do not agree with MatthiasHeil. Why not teach your basics through project based learning! That is the whole point of project based learning. I am a teacher and homeschool parent. When my son is excited about learning through a project, I work in the basics. In a classroom I do the same. I set out my standards (basic skills and content) that students need to master, and I work my project/ unit around these. I have a plethora of templates and designs on how to do this and have done so for many years now. If you would like these templates just email and let me know.
    The kids will be more inclined to want to learn them especially when they see the importance of needing to know them. We do take days to learn/practice the basic skills, but in context to the project.
    Again this is the whole point of Wiggins and McTighe's backwards design work.

  3. I apologize for the double comment, but I realized that I should share with you an example of what I mean.
    Begin with the standards/ targets or content the students need to master. Such as graphing. Identify a topic that interests your students. Video games perhaps. Next identify exactly what your students need to know and need to be able to do with graphing. Now, identify elements of graphing in video games (such as WoW or Red Alert etc). Now to create the project. Here is where you work backwards. Create your assessment, using the statements of what you already want your students to know and be able to do with graphing. Next, identify how this would look in terms of the project. Maybe they need to graph their gaming time, read other graphs or whatever. Then you create the lessons with direct instruction to work up to the completion of that project by the students. Thus the entire time students are receiving the basics and doing a project. Students needing some extra practice can be worked in group time. Students who are ahead can advance in the project or help their peers. Many possibilities here.
    This is a very rough picture here, and of course there are more details. Hopefully you get the idea though.

  4. Matthias,
    "I try to ____________ in my classes as often as I can, and try not to be crushed when it doesn't work out" should be the mantra of every teacher.

    If it doesn't work, change it!

    I guess my difficulty is in knowing enough about real world things such as video games in order to connect it to the math in a way that I and the students will understand. I would love to see some of those templates.

  5. Elissa: You should read What's Math Got to Do with It? by Jo Boaler. The author visited several successful schools built around project-based learning and shares their secrets. It's an easy and quick read; you'll get a lot out of it.

  6. Thanks, just what I need. I've got to see it in action before I can imitate it.

  7. Elissa,

    All (well, both...) of my classes are now problem-based classes - not project based classes. I have a set of problems that become the textbook for the course. Each night I assign (more or less) 6-10 problems. The next day the students post the problems and discussion ensues. I have used this successfully in my Calc BC class, and this year I am using it in my Geometry Honors class. I have not created them from scratch. Phillips Exeter Academy is already doing this, and they make their problem sets available. I have just adapted them for my classes.

    I love teaching this way and, if the AP scores in my Calc class are any indication, my students are doing well with it!

  8. So Jim, there's really no lecturing or note-taking in your classes? Students do problems followed by class discussion? How do you assess?

    I'd be interested in trying this, but don't see how it would work with low-achieving students who are lacking basic skills.