Aspects of Problem-Based Teaching: the Need for Community
Carmel Schettino, posted October 7, 2016 —
This time of year is when they start to come
in—the emails, the phone calls, the notes from teachers with whom I have been
in contact during the summer or past years. I love the role of educator and
mentor, but at this time of year, I find myself more in the role of cheerleader
and counselor for many teachers who have decided to move their classrooms in
the direction of problem-based learning (PBL). It’s funny, because no matter
how much you read or how many problems you do, nothing really prepares you for
actually being in the classroom and dealing with that first time a student asks,
“So, when are you going to start teaching?”
Such questions and comments as, “What do you
do when the students are used to finishing every homework problem assigned?” or
“The kids are telling me that they spent three hours on their homework last
night,” are common at the start of the year. From many years of math class, students
have come to expect assignments like this: “Do questions 1–35 odd, and you can
check your answers in the back of the book.” Now, being uncomfortable coming to
class with only partial solutions and taking the risk of sharing their ideas is
foreign and scary for students.
Transitioning to this different type of
classroom has been the topic I have taught at the Anja S. Greer Conference on
Math, Science, and Technology at Phillips Exeter Academy for more than nine
years. I created a summer summit of sorts (pblmathsummit.weebly.com), specifically
for teachers to gather and talk about this transition. Why is this need for
community so compelling, this need to find and talk with others who understand
the process? In my view, the direct-instruction math classroom is ingrained in
our American culture, in the minds of parents, students, and even other
teachers. It’s true, too, that teacher education in problem-based methods is limited,
and resources have not kept up with new and veteran teachers’ interest in
learning about PBL. For these reasons, a teacher implementing a PBL approach
can often be a lone voice with little support or encouragement.
What issues face teachers who want to transition
to a PBL classroom? These depend so much on the school, the department, and the
teachers themselves. In a school where teacher evaluation is comparitively less
tied to student testing, a teacher may feel safer moving away from direct
instruction, valuing the long-term benefits, even if results on short-term, multiple-choice,
content-based assessments seem harder to produce. The learning goals of the PBL
math classroom are broader than performance on tests. They include the
• Have students master mathematical content.
• Advance students’ problem-solving skills.
• Improve students’ mathematical communication skills.
• Increase creativity, perseverance, risk-taking, and innovation.
• Help students become better collaborators.
Departments and administrations that value
these goals are likely already implementing (or considering) many initiatives to
help students grow in these ways. However, the onus is ultimately on individual
teachers to put in the time, energy, and effort in finding resources (problems
or already existing curricula), reviewing their curriculum, mastering the craft,
and ensuring that they are assessing these learning goals accurately and
fairly. This can be a hugely overwhelming task for first-time PBL teachers,
especially those working on their own.
A teacher can feel very uneasy moving from
directing discussion in the classroom (or perhaps even leading the discussion
with a lecture or activity) to allowing students to direct the discussion of
the problems. Finding a balance between letting students come to class with
statements about their prior knowledge, perhaps with partial solutions to
present, and letting them grapple with one another’s ideas can be difficult. Students
are looking for the authority of the teacher to validate the mathematics because
they are not used to being any type of mathematical authority in the classroom.
The process must be practiced, and the culture must be fostered and taught—and these
are just as important as the material itself.
In the next few blogposts, I will focus on
some specific questions that those who have made this transition have faced:
assessment, nuts-and-bolts of classroom management, and others. Please feel
free to comment below or on my website at carmelschettino.org.
With problem-based learning
as her specialization, Carmel Schettino, firstname.lastname@example.org,
obtained a PhD in math education while teaching at the secondary level for more
than twenty years. She is passionate about helping teachers grapple with the
pedagogical and curricular questions that arise when PBL is brought into the
math classroom. Her other areas of expertise include gender equity, discourse,
technological implications, and PBL's relationship to the Common Core. Schettino has consulted for a number of schools, has presented
for NCTM (e.g., Annual
Conferences 2015 and 2016) and has published articles with respect to PBL in the
secondary mathematics classroom.