Problem Based Learning: an Instructional Model and Its Constructivist Framework

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Problem Based Learning:
An instructional model and its constructivist framework

It is said that there’s nothing so practical as good theory. It may also be said that there’s nothing so theoretically interesting as good practice1. This is particularly true of efforts to relate constructivism as a theory of learning to the practice of instruction. Our goal in this paper is to provide a clear link between the theoretical principles of constructivism, the practice of instructional design, and the practice of teaching. We will begin with a basic characterization of constructivism identifying what we believe to be the central principles in learning and understanding. We will then identify and elaborate on eight instructional principles for the design of a constructivist learning environment. Finally, we will examine what we consider to be one of the best exemplars of a constructivist learning environment -- Problem Based Learning as described by Barrows (1985, 1986, 1992).

Constructivism is a philosophical view on how we come to understand or know. It is, in our mind, most closely attuned to the pragmatic philosophy of Richard Rorty (1991). Space limitations for this paper prevent an extensive discussion of this philosophical base, but we would commend to the interested reader the work of Rorty (1991) as well as vonGlaserfeld (1989). We will characterize the philosophical view in terms of three primary propositions.

1. Understanding is in our interactions with the environment. This is the core concept of constructivism. We cannot talk about what is learned separately from how it is learned, as if a variety of experiences all lead to the same understanding. Rather, what we understand is a function of the content, the context, the activity of the learner, and, perhaps most importantly, the goals of the learner. Since understanding is an individual construction, we cannot share understandings but rather we can test the degree to which our individual understandings are compatible. An implication of this proposition is that cognition is not just within the individual but rather it is a part of the entire context, i.e., cognition is distributed.

2. Cognitive conflict or puzzlement is the stimulus for learning and determines the organization and nature of what is learned. When we are in a learning environment, there is some stimulus or goal for learning -- the learner has a purpose for being there. That goal is not only the stimulus for learning, but it is a primary factor in determining what the learner attends to, what prior experience the learner brings to bear in constructing an understanding, and, basically, what understanding is eventually constructed. In Dewey's terms it is the "problematic" that leads to and is the organizer for learning (Dewey, 1938; Rochelle, 1992). For Piaget it is the need for accommodation when current experience cannot be assimilated in existing schema (Piaget, 1977; vonGlaserfeld, 1989). We prefer to talk about the learner's "puzzlement" as being the stimulus and organizer for learning since this more readily suggests both intellectual and pragmatic goals for learning. The important point, however, is that it is the goal of the learner that is central in considering what is learned. 3. Knowledge evolves through social negotiation and through the evaluation of the viability of individual understandings. The social environment is critical to the development of our individual understanding as well as to the development of the body of propositions we call knowlege. At the individual level, other individuals are a primary mechanism for testing our understanding. Collaborative groups are important because we can test our own understanding and examine the understanding of others as a mechanism for enriching, interweaving, and expanding our understanding of particular issues or phenomena. As vonGlaserfeld (1989) has noted, other people are the greatest source of alternative views to...
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