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


Since starting teaching in 2004 I have grappled with trying to understand how to improve student’s timed essay writing in response to unseen exam questions. Along with my colleagues I would finish each year by reflecting on what we had done to improve our practice, hopeful that the changes I had made would be reflected in improved student grades that summer. Sometimes they were good, more often than not reasonable, but too often they were poor. It seemed that the exam and the examiners had more impact on how students performed than my own practice. I adopted contemporary practices with proven effectiveness, improved formative assessment practices and worked at my questioning techniques. However, I was hampered by an inability to see how it all fit together coherently other than in their relationship to AfL and Bloom’s taxonomy. Each appeared to be an isolated practice that other teachers seemed to be mastering but that I struggled to make sense of. When should I plan to do these things, how should I do them, how did they fit together and why did they seem to work for others when I couldn’t see their impact on my own students? I suspected many other teachers felt the same but prolonged periods of success in a few departments’ exam results suggested otherwise. More often than not I reverted back to trying to play the system, teaching students to pass my exams with less attention to how this developed them educationally beyond the grades they received.

In his inaugural lecture at Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, Professor Robert Coe stated that alongside questions over the validity and applicability of contemporary educational research, the ‘second main problem with just advocating the high-impact strategies presents perhaps even more of a challenge. Many of the most effective strategies are complex, open to interpretation and hard to implement. We may think we are doing it, but are we doing it right? In most cases the approach is not supported by a well-defined, feasible, large-scale intervention strategy.’ (Coe 2013: 10). This resonates with me because not only had I not been able to clearly define where these activities should take place in the curriculum, I could see no overarching pedagogical framework in which they would fit.

Without such a framework for curriculum design, I was unable to see where activities should fall in the learning process which made it difficult to appreciate the importance of the activity. In education it doesn’t help that many of the same tools that can be used to do one thing, e.g. getting students to analyse a theory or argument in detail, can also be used to do something quite different, e.g. a critical analysis of their own thinking. As teachers we can all appreciate the experience of talking to another teacher who is excited about the impact that a resource or activity is having on their teaching while being unable to clearly see how it fits into our own teaching. How often do we try and then quickly abandon something promising because it doesn’t fit neatly into our current practice? What we need and sorely lack is a curriculum framework that defines the learning process as a process within which these activities have more obvious functions.

As a result of action research that has developed over the past three years I have reached conclusions regarding the process of student development that I believe provide the pedagogical framework to which Coe alludes and answers most if not all of the questions that I had been asking. This research began by experimenting with activities involving analysis and evaluation following one of the very few ‘Eureka!’ moments I have experienced in the classroom (but has since led to many more) and has culminated in a pedagogical theory that has allowed me to radically restructure my schemes of work (SOW), my formative assessment practices and my thinking about student development and performance.

I have found that being able to make coherent sense of and make use of teaching activities effectively requires an improved understanding of critical analysis, a key stepping stone from knowledge acquisition to evaluative competence. I am asserting that there is a close relationship between critical analysis and the type of problem-based learning that has become a key feature of many HE courses, predominantly in medicine but also in other subjects that have clear vocational pathways. However in this use, problem-based learning has been regarded as distinct from and for some even incommensurable with formal education. I argue that if we understand the role of the problem in critical analysis, we will be compelled to restructure our curricula to make use of this insight and in doing so we will adopt the pedagogical perspectives associated with problem-based learning (PBL). Although this research is in its infancy, it is already clear that it brings the following advantages:

  • Seeing clear relationships between different activities or phases in the learning cycle, thereby making it much clearer to students and teachers what they are trying to achieve and why.
  • Triggering an explosion in teacher creativity and student performance, thereby achieving the goals of formal education more effectively. 
  • Teachers begin to avoid many of the age-old problems and criticisms directed at formal education, e.g. engaging disengaged students, improving the quality of thinking and writing, creating independent, motivated learners who are empowered to meet the demands of employment.
  • Accruing the many benefits associated with PBL in formal education, e.g. learning to analyse complex, multi-faceted situations and develop knowledge to guide decision making, project management, critical thinking skills, interpersonal and self-directional skills.
  • Delivering the social benefits associated with PBL, e.g. improvements in employability and student wellbeing.
  • Rethinking formal education to prepare students for more contextual and sophisticated PBL scenarios, thereby making PBL more effective.
  • Genuinely preparing students for employment by giving them metacognitive control over their own personal development, teaching them what success involves and how to achieve it.

I have found that when teachers and students have an understanding of how analysis functions, where to use different resources in the learning process and where not to, and what students are trying to achieve in each activity, practitioners have a model for curriculum design and problem solving which clarifies existing ambiguity in both and offers students a route to success in the classroom and beyond. It also reveals just how powerful metacognition can be when used effectively in framing learning activities, setting classroom expectations and helping students develop a growth mindset.

This pedagogy distinguishes tasks of detailed analysis, critical analysis and critical thinking and explains how they are interrelated in the learning process. In doing so it reveals the problem-based diagnostic function and dialectical functioning of critical analysis within the taxonomy of capabilities. This helps bring together contemporary thinking and research on achievement under a single pedagogical perspective, helping make sense of these practices. The theory doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel so much as think about using it differently, however in reappraising our practice it does offer the opportunity to develop many new resources and activities.

The theory offers a framework within which teachers can understand and plan formative assessment into their SOW from first lesson to last.  It utilises powerful metacognitive insights that can be deployed to promote attention, motivation, and the development of a growth mindset. It also makes sense of questioning techniques so that they no longer appear to be a matter of artistry but can be brought under our control and we can see how and why they fit into the SOW where they do. Ultimately, this theory offers the teacher a set of comprehensive and comprehensible stepping stones to help them lead their students from basic knowledge and understanding to mastery of the subject and their own development beyond the classroom. I believe that it can show how the insights into achievement that have been gathering apace in education for over twenty years have implications for performance outside of the classroom in the world of industry.

This essay begins by detailing the insights regarding analysis and student development that have been the product of the past three years of action research within my department. Moving beyond an embarrassing variety of interpretations of what the activity of ‘analysis’ involves, this investigation into and deconstruction of analysis reveals the variety and inter-relation of analytical processes involved in taking a learner from knowledge to evaluation. I argue that these tasks, from detailed analysis of subject matter and one’s understanding of it, to initial critical analysis of a problem or challenge, critical analysis of alternative perspectives on these problems, and finally the reflective detailed analysis used in critical analysis of one’s own thinking, all work in the service of critical analysis’ diagnostic problem-based function – the utilisation of knowledge to address problems within the subject. I contend that understanding the diagnostic framework of analysis reveals layers of dialectical learning that can be utilised to refine and embed learning in the process of addressing subject problems.

The essay then moves on to explain how teachers can adopt a model for curriculum design on the basis of these insights which will help them make coherent sense of, incorporate and exercise control over contemporary practice in education. Each learning episode or cycle is broken down into 10 distinct but interrelated phases. A curriculum framework based on this refined understanding provides exactly what has been missing from education, a process that makes sense of and finds a coherent place for contemporary practices whereby the teacher knows exactly why they are doing what they’re doing. In the fact that it simply makes more effective use of previously tried and tested techniques, imposing this structure on one’s teaching does not require a radical rethinking of what we do in class, but more how we do it. In fact it demystifies many AfL practices such as questioning strategy in a way that empowers the teacher in their use of them. This framework makes challenging demands on students but seeks to inspire and motivate them to take ownership of subject challenges and their own personal development by offering them a meta-cognitive appreciation of how engaging in and taking ownership of the process of learning will enable them to achieve success within the subject and beyond.

This essay finishes with reflective analysis and a consideration of those counterarguments that I have been able to predict at this early stage in the development of this pedagogical approach, and explores some potential directions that this research might take in its future development regarding student/teacher wellbeing and productivity in general.  In keeping with the ethos of PBL this approach offers a more humane, student centred approach to education. It promises to be a more efficient and a more productive use of teacher and student energy. It offers an understanding of the learning process that takes much of the guesswork and therefore stress out of the occupation. I also speculate that it suggests a model of employment relations in which employees are regarded as having an investment in themselves and their own development which, if unlocked, could be harnessed to address national productivity challenges.

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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