Introducing problem-based learning into the classroom by bringing critical analysis into sharper focus


Over several years of research  into methods that can be used to improve student performance in the humanities, an investigation into the activity of critical analysis revealed that it lacks a clear and coherent definition, but also that when its key verbs are distilled from those involved in other forms of analysis, e.g. detailed analysis or critical thinking, we find that it involves establishing relationships between previously acquired knowledge and evaluative challenges or problems. While it might seem barely credible that this has not previously been identified, it is implied in the more intuitive definitions of critical analysis that have been proposed. Adopting this definition only involves a subtle change in perspective on the part of the practitioner, but when defined in this way a relationship emerges between critical analysis, other forms of analysis, and other levels of competence that had been previously obscured by lack of clarity but that allows us to plan student learning much more effectively and efficiently. What emerges is a pedagogy that bears the vast majority of the hallmarks of Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and incorporates its many benefits into mainstream education, but it also allows this learning to be assessed in ways that the PBL tradition has either struggled with or outright rejected. While advocates of PBL argue that the approach is not appropriate for delivering subject-based content, I argue that if we adopt the model of problem-based critical analysis being proposed here, PBL can be seen as the most appropriate means by which to plan subject-based curricula. In doing so mainstream education can avoid many of the criticisms leveled against it by the PBL community, significantly improve student engagement and performance, and do so without the requirement for any structural change to the current system. However, by transforming the way we perceive and interact with our learners this pedagogy promises the capacity to deliver significant improvements in performance and benefits well beyond the classroom.

Published by Dom McArdle

I came into teaching with an MA in Political Philosophy in 2004. Since then I have been teaching Politics and Philosophy A-levels in state-supported post-16 education, and I have been a department head since 2012. As with all colleagues in the state sector I have faced sustained pressure to improve standards. However, teaching in an inclusive college setting raised particular challenges. At a transitional time of their lives producing its own demands and motivations, these students often face serious social disadvantage with no family aspiration to higher education, and they are free to drop out at any time. Because of the nature of the subject it has not been difficult to inspire students to take an interest in Philosophy, but it has been an uphill battle to get them all to a point where they can confidently manipulate complex abstract ideas in evaluating philosophical claims. However, it took one resource at a CPD event in 2017 to spot something that I recognised could help achieve this. Through two years of classroom research I have reached the conclusion that neither in education nor employment have we completely understood what it involved in critical analysis, an essential step in the development of higher-order abilities. I argue that subsequent insights into Bloom’s taxonomy offer a new perspective on education which helps make current thinking, research and practice more coherent and can unlock a great deal of potential in our students. Through this blog I hope to share my research, thinking, resources and strategies to help you deliver more effective teaching, learning and assessment, produce more resilient, adaptable students, and help you organise your own departments more efficiently.

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