Aspects of Problem-Based Teaching: the Need for Community

  • Aspects of Problem-Based Teaching: the Need for Community

    By 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 (, 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 following:

    •    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

    2016_09_26_Schettino_1auPic With problem-based learning as her specialization, Carmel Schettino,, 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.

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