PBL: It sounds nice in theory, but …

Over the last months, several teachers have asked me questions about PBL. “We tried the seven-jump approach, but it did not work in our school.” “We still call our program PBL, but it is not true PBL.” “PBL sounds nice in theory, but in practice it is demanding and challenging.” “What should I do with the use of laptops in my PBL session? Should I ask my students to abandon it? What if other teachers allow students to read aloud from their laptop?” “Doesn’t PBL sound old-fashioned? PBL is not innovative.”

As a researcher, I start asking them other questions: “What is true PBL in your opinion? What goals do you want to achieve with your teaching sessions? What is the context in which you are teaching? What is the quality of the cases, problems, projects, assignments? Are the guidance and support offered in line with students’ needs?” All too often, teachers feel a little disappointed when new questions are raised. They expect ready-made, easy recipes for the problems they experience in practice.

What could we, as researchers, do to help teachers? I feel we should work together more closely. We, as researchers, can learn a lot from teachers and vice versa. In my view, there are two ways to move forward that seem promising.

First, our scientific knowledge should be made more easily accessible. The Netherlands Initiative for Education Research (NRO) initiated the so-called Knowledge Roundabout in which teachers can ask questions based on their practical experiences via a website. A researcher subsequently answers the question in collaboration with a so-called knowledge broker. This answer summarizes briefly, what is known to date from the scientific literature and includes a few references to relevant resources. It does not offer a recipe, but, at best, offers guidance on what might work in a specific context with particular goals in mind, based on theory.

Second, we need to create time and space for reflection on our practice and theories and to learn from each other. Our institutions should create opportunities to stimulate teachers, researchers, and students to collaboratively redesign and investigate teaching practices within our schools. We should create opportunities to have dialogues, observe each other, reflect, and set personal goals for improving teaching practice, as well as to work on innovation projects. We should have a dialogue about the knowledge that is available.

Dialog could help to clarify that there is no true PBL. PBL represents a family of student-centered or task-centered approaches to teaching in which tasks, problems, or projects are the starting point for student learning. What works best in a given context is a matter of continuously reinventing the wheel. This does not mean that we must discover this all by ourselves. Schools must constantly revitalize PBL or any other approach in close collaboration with various stakeholders to discover what benefits their students the most.

Professor Diana Dolmans