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  • Elizabeth Barrett-Zahn

“Science is not a noun; it’s a verb.” (S&C Editor's Note)

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

This quote has been co-opted from Barbara De Angelis about marriage: “Marriage is not a noun; it’s a verb. It isn’t something you get. It’s something you do.” And science can easily be exchanged in this scenario. Science needs to be hands-on, students must be engaged in doing, exploring, explaining and evaluating. Our goal is not to be awarded a badge of “science,” rather it is to think scientifically using critical thinking based on evidence that is supported by facts.

And just as people have co-opted a meaningful quote to highlight the importance of doing science; educators have also co-opted other ideas such as Problem-based Learning. In 1980 Howard S. Barrow, MD and Robyn M. Tamblyn, BScN promoted an approach to make learning relevant for medical students. The idea was to engage and challenge the medical students to assess situations with real patients. Learning to be a doctor, they felt, needed to include actual patients with real conditions.

Once in the hands of primary and secondary educators, the term Problem-based Learning has been vigorously applied, touted as a panacea to the traditional curriculum, and has undergone some major name changes. We’ve heard many of the offspring acronyms of PBL such as “Project-based learning”, “Process-based learning,” “Problem approach,” also including “Place-based” and Challenge-based learning to name the most popular. But whether it’s a problem or project, whether the learning encompasses a specific place or process; what is the key to effective teaching using PBL? How can teachers design lessons that provide local context to relevant issues, are attentive to the process of learning, or provide meaning through practice and application?

This month we take on PBL in all its iterations to share practical and applicable teaching methods and learning situations to engage reluctant learners that will excite students to think creatively and with purpose. What binds the different takes on PBL together is a need to start with students: what are they interested in, what motivates them, how can we capture their attention as well as their desire to learn more, how can learning be transferred from the teacher to the students? Sometimes a real-world problem that is accessible and appropriate for your students to tackle can fall directly into your lap, and other times, we need some teaching artistry to develop a relevant scenario that provides an anchoring phenomenon to stimulate further investigation.

Problem-based Learning has come a long way since it was initially implemented in medical schools but this concept has an even deeper connection to teaching and learning. John Dewey, progressive education leader, stated, “To organize education so that natural active tendencies shall be fully enlisted in doing something, while seeing to it that the doing requires observation, the acquisition of information, and the use of a constructive imagination, is what needs to be done to improve social conditions.” -Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1916. So rather than needing to reinvent the wheel, let’s attend to best-practice, think about our students' interests and use the world around us to make learning relevant and exciting.

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