Why We Need More Problems in Education…Not Less

A couple of weeks ago, when the weather turned ridiculously cold, I was on my way home from visiting with some teachers in a nearby city when I got a little lost.  My GPS went a bit screwy and started to send me in circles.  After going by the same gas station three times, I attempted to navigate as my forefathers had done—I stopped and asked directions.

problem_solvingA helpful, older gentleman got me recalibrated, and pointed me in the right direction.  The route he suggested took me in front of a newly remodeled high school with a handful of sports practice fields on one side.  Though it was only 2 in the afternoon and barely twenty degrees outside, there were kids everywhere.  My first thought was that the school must have been having some sort of Arctic fire drill.  That’s when I heard a muffled explosion and a loud cheer from the kids on the field.

It turned out that these students were participating in their very own version of Pumkin Chunkin’—a competition where builders construct trebuchets, catapults, and air cannons to see who can launch pumpkins, gourds, and a variety of other edibles the furthest distance through the air.  The event was put on by a handful of science teachers and community members in order to build interest in physics, engineering, and problem solving—all of which are being emphasized in emerging curricular standards across the nation.

As I visited with the students, they kept talking about their teacher, Doctor Sylvester, and the learning activities that went on in his classes. They said that he was always demonstrating something potentially perilous to students and insisting that they would all ‘be safe as long as no one made any sudden movements.’  Even more interesting was how often it sounded like students got to be involved in these types of activities.  Pumpkin Chunkin’ seemed to be just one of a long list of activities used to get students excited and engaged in problem-solving.

The more I heard students talk, the more this teacher sounded like some sort of mad-scientist.  Every year Doctor Sylvester also rigs up an elaborate, musically-synchronized Christmas lights show up at his house.  People drive for miles from nearby towns and cities just to line up for a chance to park in his driveway and experience the seasonal spectacle. He also runs the music at school dances…which he enhanced with a laser-light show and a fog machine.

It also turns out that the ‘Doctor’ in Doctor Sylvester’s name isn’t just an honorary title.  After working for a few years in the Computer Science field, he decided he wanted to be a teacher instead, so…he went out and got a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction.  His dissertation?  You guessed it—Problem-based Learning.

This type of learning insists that all of education should involve either problem solving or preparation for problem solving (Delisle, 2004).  Instead of memorizing information, PBL presents students with a situation that leads to a problem and provides opportunities for students to assume the role of scientist, project manager or engineer.

Problem-based Learning originated in the medical field as a means for improving practitioners’ critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.  Barrows and Tamblyn (1996) summarized the process as follows:

  1. The problem is encountered first in the learning sequence, before any preparation or study has occurred.
  2. The problem situation is presented to the student in the same way it would present itself in reality.
  3. The student works with the problem in a manner that permits his ability to reason and apply knowledge to be challenged and evaluated, appropriate to his level of learning.
  4. Needed areas of learning are identified in the process of work with the problem and used as a guide to individualized study.
  5. The skills and knowledge acquired by this study are applied back to the problem, to evaluate the effectiveness of learning and to reinforce learning.
  6. The learning that has occurred in work with the problem and in an individualized study is summarized and integrated into the student’s existing knowledge and skills (Barrows and Tamblyn 1980, pp. 191-192).


If Problem-based Learning is good enough for a life-saving profession like medicine, certainly it’s good enough for a life-changing one like education.  And it is not just science that should being infusing student learning with PBL. Language Arts, Social Studies, Math, and just about any other course can employ active learning strategies where students talk to each other, not through the teacher.  The result—teachers rely less on the text and more on learning…learning that fosters student independence and creativity (Delisle, 2004).


A while ago, one of my sons came home with a box full of old rocketry supplies.  He said that his science teacher was going to throw it all out…since most of the equipment had been damaged by a plumbing leak in the storage area.  He sorted and sifted out the stuff that still looked useable, then loaded up a youtube video on how to hook up and launch a rocket.  We walked over to the school parking lot, and in less than an hour, he was ready to blow things sky-high.  At least he thought he was.


The rocket wouldn’t ignite.  But instead of getting frustrated, like many of us would, he started to troubleshoot.  He checked the batteries on the igniter.  He switched out the rocket engine.  He started checking each of the wires, connections, and contact points. After each adjustment, he would try it again.  Eventually, it worked.  The rocket blew hundreds of feet in the air, and floated awkwardly down to parking lot, probably due to the slightly molded, warped parachute hidden inside the body tube.


He did this again, and again until he grew bored.  He finally asked if I could take him back home.  I assumed that he was done with rocketry for the day, and was surprised when he came back from his room with the ammunition from his BB gun.  When I asked him what he was up to, he explained that he was going to use the steel balls to make the rocket heavier and heavier to see how much thrust the engine actually has.  I wasn’t sure if I should be terrified or intrigued.   I went with the latter, and helped supervise his project.  Eventually, after four incremental adjustments to the weight of the rocket tube, the engine failed to lift the rocket.  But to my son, it wasn’t a failure—it was a success.


This is what a child’s brain does when teachers (and parents) have the courage to get out of the way…when we are willing to facilitate learning, rather than driving it.  We need more problem—and problem solving in schools.  The question isn’t IF we should be using PBL in schools.  The real question is why aren’t we using it more?





Barrows, H. S., & Tamblyn, R. M. (1996). Problem-based learning: An approach to Medical Education. New York, NY: Springer.


Delisle, R., & Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (2004). How to use problem-based learning in the classroom. Moorabbin, Vic: Hawker Brownlow Education.


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