Things I Know 229 of 365: I’ve seen Problem-Based Learning from the other side

It takes half your life before you discover life is a do-it-yourself project.

– Napoleon Hill

I just turned in my second statistics assignment. I should note (and I’m sorry Mr. Curry), when I took statistics during undergrad it became a sad march toward intellectual self-destruction. I hesitate to say intellectual, but the professor certainly attempted to steer my thinking that direction.

More often, my thinking was, “How does this count as math? I know calculus. How is this math?”

It wasn’t pretty.

My current statistics professor came with glowing reviews – from everyone. Everyone.

And he’s fantastic.

A lecture hall can be a stuffy space.

A statistics course can be a stuffy space.

The intersection is potentially numbing.

Not with Terry Tivnan.

In a course explicitly designed with the beginner in mind, Professor Tivnan works to set a pace and climate that has yet to have me feeling out of my depth.

Given the laughter and applause that pepper our classes, I’d say my classmates are in a similar situation.

And then the assignment came.

Now, remember, I have been teaching in an inquiry-driven, project-based school for the last for years and another school for two years before that that was doing those things, but didn’t think to say so. Not only is this learning I believe in, it’s learning I’ve assigned as well.

Until recently, it hadn’t been learning I’d experienced. Seems appropriate I dove into the process in a field for which I’ve less natural predilection.

Without going too deeply into details, our assignment gave us two data sets, some information about national trends regarding that data, and asked us to compare the data and write up a report for a fictional school board regarding our findings.

That’s it. No one outlined steps. No one said this is the information you must report.

“How are these two things related, and what does that mean?” we were asked.

It hurt my brain.

A lot.

Unclear as to how to approach the problems and feeling the wait of my mathematical past, I avoided the assignment for as long as I could.

I worked to help classmates make sense of the work, while avoiding my own.

And then I realized what he had done.

He wanted us to own the process. I’ll get nowhere if I have to look to an authority each time I need to decide when and how to use a “z score” or the importance of a weighted mean. I needed to own it.

The process needed to be mine.

Now, these are things I’ve professed for years. I’ve stood in front of audiences and classrooms and argued the importance of this kind of learning.

Here’s the thing – it’s tough.

As incredibly difficult as shaping a lesson or unit plan for problem-based learning may be, learning that way is incredibly difficult.

From several classmates I heard cries of, “Why won’t he just tell us what he wants or what to do?”

I’d heard that before.

“But how do I do it, Mr. Chase?”

As supportive as I’d meant to be, I never truly understood the difficulty involved in adapting new habits of learning.

I expect it’ll get easier – not quickly – as we’re expected to do more on our own with the knowledge and understandings we’re acquiring.

For this go ‘rough, it was tough. I need to remember that.


2 thoughts on “Things I Know 229 of 365: I’ve seen Problem-Based Learning from the other side

  1. Great post, and very thought provoking. Something I'll certainly be bearing in mind as I head towards more PBL in my teaching. Just out of curiosity, you mentioned that you helped your classmates, initially as a way to avoid your own project. Do you think that helped you to make sense of yours? In other words, is some element of coaching someone else through their problems something we should be building in to our classrooms?All the best,Dave

  2. A-yup. Thus the times I've photocopied all our collected projects and handed them out to the faculty. This stuff is more than hard – it's complex. That's what gets you.

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