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

Theory and Conclusions

To conclude the research as it currently stands I would like to consider potential criticisms and implications of the pedagogy that I have had the opportunity to consider to date.

Problem-based learning was originally conceived at McMaster University to ‘develop in medical students the ability to relate the knowledge they had gained to the problems with which patients presented, something they found that few medical students could do well’ (Savin-Baden, 2000; p.4). Research conducted by Howard Barrows and Robyn Tamblyn found that ‘medical students and residents for the most part did not seem to think at all. Some gathered data ritualistically and tried to add it all up afterwards, while others came up with a diagnosis based on some symptom or sign, never considering possible alternatives’ (Barrow & Tamblyn, 1980 cited in Savin-Baden, 2000; p.14). PBL therefore replaced vast amounts of abstract theory and narrow interpretations of problem-solving (presenting students with a problem and requiring them to come up with the correct answer) by organising the curricular content around problem-scenarios rather than subjects or disciplines. In PBL students work in groups or teams to solve or manage these situations but they are not expected to acquire a predetermined set of ‘right answers’ (Savin-Baden, 2000; p.3). 

From its inception therefore, PBL was regarded as an antidote to the self-absorbed remoteness of traditional forms of education as abstract and vocationally fruitless pursuits. By focusing on the transformation of the learner rather than what they are able to reproduce, advocates of PBL regard it as an ‘authentic pedagogy’ in a genuinely existential sense; the aim is to produce a transformation in the student’s ontological sense of self. PBL therefore is regarded as a progressive pedagogy that sets itself in opposition to education as knowledge acquisition. David Leat regards it as

‘a divergent pedagogy [that] requires very different thinking and practices from teachers, which are difficult to assume for many who have been inducted thinking of learning as linear and substantially marshalled by teachers… there is a strong implication that students will take far greater ownership of their learning and its assessment, which goes far beyond setting their next subject target drawn from from a linear subject assessment progression’ (Leat 2017; p.61). He goes further adding that ‘[m]ost competences cannot be assessed in school environments because the necessary conditions are not met – the whole person is not called upon and there is no sense of a real-world task or demand, most school classrooms are curiously disconnected from the world beyond.’ (ibid; p.62).

Leat argues that PBL favours formative over summative assessments (ibid; p.37), recorded in digital portfolios (ibid: p.63), and Mantzoukas points out that more appropriate methods might include ‘reflective journals or diaries, reflective portfolios supported by individual reflective supervision and group reflections (Mantzoukas, 2007; p.243).

The criticisms however come from both sides of the aisle. Barron and Darling-Hammond point out that…

‘project-based learning has been rejected as too unstructured during several eras of “back to the basics” backlash, or as policy makers have assumed that applied projects are only needed in vocational training… “doing for the sake of doing” rather than doing for the sake of learning… There is a growing consensus that authentic problems and projects afford unique opportunities for learning but that authenticity in and of itself does not guarantee learning (Barron et al., 1998; Thomas, 2000).’ (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2010; p.201-2).

‘Studies of the effectiveness of problem-based learning suggest that, like other project-based approaches, it is comparable, though not always superior, to more traditional instruction in facilitating factual learning, but it is better in supporting flexible problem-solving, application of knowledge and hypothesis generation’ (ibid; p.205).

Indeed, Leat points out that in John Hattie’s meta-analysis of teaching techniques, problem-based learning scores very close to the bottom in terms of factors affecting outcomes; ‘for ‘surface’ knowledge, problem-based learning is not very effective and can even have negative effects, but where the surface knowledge is secure problem-based learning can have a positive effect’. (Leat, 2017; p.63). Hattie himself cites Dochy et al (2003) who claim that while PBL has a negative effect on standardised test scores compared to conventional teaching approaches, it has a positive effect on skill (ibid; p.63). We should remind ourselves however that knowledge acquisition, the effects of which can be measured in summative assessment, is not the goal for most exponents of the strategy; ‘The aspiring objective is not to fill the heads of every student with identical, replicable and ‘factual’ knowledge, but to provide the means and mechanisms for every student to produce their own individual and personal knowledge’ (Mantzoukas, 2007; p.245).

While there has always existed the intention to distinguish PBL from more didactic forms of knowledge acquisition, there is a tension over the degree to which it should be untethered from subject-based learning. There are those like Mantzoukas for whom there is no objective, universal, value-free knowledge, and reflective practice simply cannot take place within broader academic study without it going through a radical transformation. There are others for whom PBL involves what we do with knowledge once we have acquired it but argue that technical proficiencies cannot be developed in a standard teaching format. What we see in either case and throughout the developing PBL tradition from inception at McMaster to current interpretations is its association with vocational rather than academic practice. This essay however argues that by identifying the role of the problem within diagnostic critical analysis, we see that the techne of knowledge use becomes part of the episteme of knowledge acquisition. The dialectic interrelation of different phases of the learning process, from introduction to new learning to reflecting on what we have learned, frames the entire learning cycle in terms of learner transformation through the adoption, application, and mastery of thinking skills. This essay argues that learning cycles of knowledge acquisition that are based around diagnostic critical analysis remain true to the ethos and practice of PBL.

Writing at the turn of the century, approaching half a decade after the changes at McMaster, Savin Baden pointed out that…

‘[t]he largest area of growth in the use of problem-based learning is in the area of professional education. This can be seen in the diversity of literature and texts that offer guidance to those in professional education wanting to implement problem-based learning (for example Alavi, 1995; Boud and Feletti, 1997; Taylor, 1997; Glen and Wilkie, 1999)’ (Savin-Baden, 2000; p.21).

PBL has always been seen as an approach that can meet ‘the increasing demand for the development of particular ‘skills’ within curricula…

‘Such skills are commonly termed ‘key skills’ and are the kinds of skills such as working with others, problem-solving and improving personal learning and performance… [designed] to produce graduates with well-developed personal and interpersonal skills. The development of key skills has become increasingly important as higher education… is being encouraged to produce graduates who are flexible and have market-related skills and abilities’ (ibid; p.15).

Mantzoukas points out that during the 1980s and 1990s…

‘practice disciplines, such as law, engineering, education, social care and other health professions were quick to perceive the benefits of employing PBL in the delivery of their courses (Wilkie, 2000). In specific, the nursing profession anticipated that PBL would deal with the identified theory/practice gap and would develop critical and reflective thinkers, good communicators, problem solvers and lifelong learners (Glen, 1995; Biley & Smith, 1999; Blackford & Street, 1999; Wood, 2003; Rees, 2004)’ (Mantzoukas, 2007; p.246).

Introducing their review of PBL research, Barron and Darling-Hammond state that since the 1980’s…

‘a wide array of organisations have emphasised the need to support 21st century skills through learning that supports inquiry, application, production and problem- solving… urging instructional reforms to help students gain vital media literacies, critical thinking skills, systems thinking, and interpersonal and self-directional skills that allow them to manage projects and competently find resources and use tools’ (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2010; p.200).

PBL ‘or case-based approaches have been used in business, law, and teacher education to help students to learn to analyse complex, multi-faceted situations and develop knowledge to guide decision-making (e.g. Lundeberg, Levin and Harrington, 1999; Savery and Duffy, 1995; Williams, 1992)’ (ibid; p.205).

While this distinction between academic and vocational learning, knowledge acquisition and professional skill development, or hard and soft skills has featured large in the history of PBL, there are stark differences over how interactive or distinct the two aspects of learning should be made in curriculum design. For some the intention is ‘to model good reasoning strategies and support the students to take on these roles themselves. At the same time teachers also provide instruction in more traditional ways such as providing lectures and explanation which are crafted and timed to support inquiry’ (Mantzoukas, 2007; p.205). In medicine, PBL’s place in the curriculum typically follows years of lecture based learning in which the student learns the factual information that they then go on to apply in PBL settings (Mantzoukas, 2007; p.248/Savin-Baden, 2000: p.16-17). ‘The various patient problems [are] presented in such a way, as to acknowledge students’ learning to date, to fit in with the other subjects of the curriculum and to encourage the development of skills, such as communication, critical thinking and decision-making (Price, 2003)’ (Mantzoukas, 2007; p.246).

Discussing the integration of PBL and enquiry-based learning (EBL) within the traditional university curriculum of nursing departments, Mantzoukas notes that ‘the aim is to construct scenarios in such a way as to meet the learning requirements of the traditional curriculum (Blackford & Street, 1999; Williams, 1999; Morales-Mann & Kaitell, 2001; Suhre & Harskamp, 2001)…’

‘In cases, where the PBL/EBL scenarios do not achieve the aims and outcomes of the traditional curriculum, then a series of strategies are undertaken to improve the programme by including more direction in facilitated group work and by increasing the module content to ensure that certain information is covered (Williams, 1999). Overall, it is acknowledged by educationalists that the PBL/EBL philosophy of teaching must have a set of predetermined learning outcomes that need to be achieved if the module is to be successful (Bechtel et al., 1999; Alexander et al., 2002; Rees, 2004)… The fact that module outcomes should be explicitly presented and clearly stated is not something that the PBL/EBL philosophy contests. What is contested is that some of these predetermined and specific outcomes are best achieved if PBL/EBL philosophy is applied, rather than traditional teaching strategies. Therefore, the majority of nursing schools are implementing hybrid and/or single-strand PBL/EBL modules. These PBL/EBL modules include a series of ‘fixed resource sessions’ (FRS) or ‘parallel resource sessions’ (PRS) that have the format of structured traditional lectures aiming at transmitting and purporting the knowledge that is essential but difficult to grasp by the PBL/EBL format (Wilkie, 2000; Suhre & Harskamp, 2001; Morris & Turnbull, 2004)’ (ibid.247-8).

What emerges here is a tension between the radical phenomenology (concerning phenomena as subjective experience, distinct from noumena – the objective but unattainably transcendent source of experience) at the heart of the PBL ethos, and the requirement for student learning to be based on and return reflectively to solid and assessable foundations in knowledge. While Mantzoukas argues that some believe ‘PBL/EBL can become part of the current curriculum structures and satisfy the current requirements of professional bodies of quality control, while at the same time incorporating reflection in delivering modules and potentially developing future reflective practitioners’ (ibid; p.248), he rejects this assertion on fundamental epistemological grounds. Mantzoukas sides with Gary Rolfe who ‘argues for a shift from the traditional learning model where the ‘learner learns about practice, usually from those who profess to know more about it than she does’ (p. 171) towards the ‘experiential learning model’ where the experiential learner predominantly learns from and in practice’ (Rolfe, 2001 cited in Mantzoukas 2007; p.243). In keeping with the picture of PBL as an authentic pedagogy, he argues that

‘the core element of reflective epistemology is the decentralization of both knowledge and authority from the lecturer to the students. This epistemological shift in education slips unavoidably in a Lyotardian and Rortyian scepticism with regard to grand theories and true knowledge passed down in a didactic form. If knowledge is created by the individual, as purported by reflection, rather than found or waiting to be discovered, then all types of knowledge can be equally valid and no knowledge has any privileged positioning over any other type of knowledge. Even the knowledge of the lecturer is not privileged over that of the student’ (Mantzoukas, 2007; p.244).

There are good reasons for rejecting the radical phenomenological position adopted by Rolfe and Mantzoukas, and it is necessary to do so to reestablish some relationship between reflective problem-based practice and subject-based teaching that roots student development in foundational knowledge acquisition. Adopting such an extreme position raises the obvious suspicion that it can provide little guidance as to what would be regarded as a ‘competent inquirer’ or what students could use to ‘critically explore their… experiences and thoughts’ (Mantzoukas, 2007; p.244). In fact Mantzoukas admits as much in recognising that within medical teaching a more objective interpretation of PBL ‘is viewed as a favourable, valid and authoritative way of producing knowledge. This has to do largely with its close affiliation with the authoritative discipline of medicine and its focus on evidence based approach to solving problems’ (ibid; p.248). 

Sympathetically, what Mantzoukas is trying to achieve for learners is the development of independent inquiring minds. He argues that ‘the a priori explication of learning outcomes by the curriculum is incommensurable with the notion of reflective knowledge’ (ibid; p.245), and adopts this position because, he argues, ‘one of the most important aspects of reflective epistemology is that of problem identification and problem formation, which in essence has spurred the development of reflective theories and which is known as a process of naming and framing of the problematic situation’ (ibid; p.248-9). Courses that (mis)use PBL to deliver learning objectives

‘do not only have well-formed and well-defined problems for students, but at the same time they have well-formed and well-defined solutions which all students will need to arrive at in order for them to successfully complete such a module (Blackford & Street, 1999; Morales-Mann & Kaitell, 2001; Alexander et al., 2002). This however negates from the student the learning potential of identifying the problematic situation, of framing the problem and eventually of constructing a unique solution for the identified problem’ (ibid; p.249).

Mantzoukas quotes Hargreaves (2004) to make his point; ‘what I think students do is learn to produce a narrative that they and their assessors each recognize as a legitimate reflection of an idealized professional scenario’ (Hargreaves, 2004, cited in Mantzoukas 2010; p.249).

This approach ‘does not develop those skills necessary for identifying and framing clinical problems, but instead students are provided with readymade problems. The creative and self-directed element of shaping problems and constructing solutions is substituted by the task-orientated attempt to follow a series of steps to uncover what the lecturer thinks is the right solution’ (Mantzoukas, 2010; p.249). And so for Biley and Smith (1999), the ‘process is reduced to a task-orientated approach where the same steps are taken, in the same order, in each scenario, to find the right answer’ (Bilet & Smith 1999, cited in Mantzoukas 2010; p. 249).

The phenomenological approach above takes an ostensibly objective problem and denies its objective existence, reframing it in subjective terms, declaring all problems to be by necessity defined in terms of experience, and moreover experiences shaped by society. In doing so it promotes the kind of authenticity and existential freedom we find in Sartre’s work; we are absolutely free to define our experiences and our responses to them. In this sense, any claim to objectivity does appear to be incommensurable with reflective practice. As with Descartes’ Meditations or Hume’s empirical scepticism, these are the inevitable conclusions that follow from philosophical investigations into the status of ‘truths’ derived from experience, ending either in a Cartesian dualism or a Kantian distinction between phenomena and unknowable, transcendent noumena.

However it is entirely possible to remain consistent to this understanding and simultaneously adopt the language of objective truth, in fact Richard Rorty (to whom Mantzoukas appeals) does so himself in ‘Contingency, Irony and Solidarity’ in which he gives up any pretence to the claim that liberal freedoms are founded in fact and demands that we just assert them anyway; without an objective standard of truth then we are free to define what is true. In this sense, although epistemological scepticism appears to block the road to knowledge claims, it also allows us to push that road-block to one side and carry on regardless. We see an alternative but related response to postmodern scepticism in Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ as the nihilistic, atheist brother Ivan battles with his rejection of values and the knowledge that his brother Dmitry will be hung for killing their father, a crime that Ivan knows Dmitry did not commit. The sense of injustice drives Ivan out of his mind. An ‘authentic’ aesthetic may be philosophically coherent, but as Descartes recognised in his Meditations, the world has a tendency to reassert itself. Nursing students taught from a radically sceptical perspective may define the world and its problems authentically in their own terms, but the cut-and-thrust of ward realities are likely to overwhelm their ability to sustain it for long. 

We can see that in the arts and humanities the postmodern approach that Mantzoukas adopts might free students from the pressure of searching, reading and assessing the archives on any given topic, and there can be genuine benefits from doing so both for student and teacher (Savin-Baden, 2000; p.25) but this wouldn’t prevent them from making the same mistakes that others have made countless times before, and to say that their thinking is original simply because it is theirs would not protect them from charges of plagiarism. Even if it did (because experience can’t be plagiarised) then the point of publishing original thinking becomes moot. How does learning or growth take place if what we understand next is no more or less valuable than what we understood before? Mantzoukas draws on Derrida’s textual analysis and Rorty’s postmodern sceptical ironism to make his point (ibid; p.244) but the trouble with this is that they themselves were deconstructing previously received wisdoms, whether this was in epistemology or in political philosophy, so what they ended up with were perspectives on those claims that were founded out of those claims – if they’d had nothing to work with they’d have had nothing to say about it. There may be ‘nothing outside the text’ but there is a text – learning must be built on and go back to its foundations.

In my experience of developing curriculums around problem-based critical analysis Mantzoukas is mistaken to think that imposing objectives on the activity means that students will not be able to own the problem or arrive at their own solutions, they simply give the activity a purpose and frame student development within an understanding of what that development might look like, and in fact the pedagogy demands that curricula are structured in a way that makes personal development a requirement of the course. The process of dialectical reasoning that is unlocked through an understanding of the diagnostic function of critical analysis is based on, and then sets out to refine, our foundational knowledge, very much in the style of the socratic dialectic alluded to by Savin-Baden or as displayed in Descartes’ Meditations, examining, scrutinising and questioning our beliefs in order to improve them. Dialectic is progressive both in the sense of learner development but also in terms of the progress of ideas and it requires foundations. If a problem is related to particular subject matter then it will need to work with foundational knowledge from within that subject.

I will return to the phenomenological perspectives on PBL in considering whether or not only vocational, skill based education can be genuinely student-centred. It is clear that for most, epistemic integrity is not the primary motivation when moving away from didactic formats in favour of incorporating PBL into their courses. In fact, the technique has been adopted by some to manage student interaction with the sheer volume of facts that have accumulated in their subject domains (Savin-Baden, 2010; p.25). Most accept that subject knowledge has some role to play in PBL, and even Leat who argues that traditional schooling is ‘in real danger of becoming anachronistic’ (Leat, 2017; p.12), favours a critical realist perspective on PBL from which there may be no objectively definable reality, but there is ‘some degree of knowable reality that is being gradually discovered… understood and constructed by people in individual and social ways’ (ibid; p.33). However, it is clear that all of these interpretations do follow the ethos of the taxonomy of problem-based practices originally developed by Barrow, whereby ‘student-centred’ PBL is at the opposite extreme from lecture-based, ‘teacher led’ case studies (Savin-Baden, 2000; p.18), and it is the latter that is associated with knowledge acquisition.

This essay argues that problem-based critical analysis focuses knowledge acquisition firmly on student transformation, and the evidence for this is that it adopts the vast majority of the characteristics and accrues many of the benefits associated with PBL by its adherents.

The cognitive engagement associated with problem-based learning, being lost in thought, is not only a characteristic of the detailed, critical, and reflective analytic phases of learning cycles, but metacognitively the problem-based critical analysis model teaches students the importance of motivation, maintaining focus and avoiding distraction in these phases to the development of successful outcomes. While Leat rails against attempts to yoke PBL to ’the standardised, summative test, which is closely allied to market models of school improvement and strong accountability systems’ (Leat, 2017; p.62), in its implementation the model of learning being promoted here is closely akin to what he terms ‘Competence Model’, which he argues ‘focuses more on human capability to operate and succeed in both employment and civil society. The competence model does have a greater concern for more rounded outcomes than market-metrics exam results and combines summative and formative assessment principles’ (ibid; p.62). Citing the work of Rychen & Salagnik (2003) and Hoskins & Deakin-Crick (2010), Leat identifies competence as

‘the ability to successfully meet complex demands in a particular context through the mobilisation of psychosocial prerequisites (including cognitive and non-cognitive aspects)’, drawing on ‘knowledge, cognitive skills, practical skills, attitudes, emotions, values, ethics, and motivation’. It is ‘the ‘internal mental structures in the sense of abilities, dispositions or resources embedded in the individual’ working together with a ‘specific real world task or demand’.’ (ibid; p.62).

By recognising that the problems associated with subjects are only problems for students if they are motivated to see them as such, a curriculum that is constructed around problem-based critical analysis will take much greater care over inducting students onto the course, it will recognise that the teacher’s role in the initial phases of learning a topic will require Vygotskian mediation so that the teacher acts as a bridge between the student’s experiences and understanding and the challenges that they face by revealing the subject’s problems as genuine problems, and a key feature of the course must be delivering a metacognitive understanding of the learning process as a process of problem solving. This will empower them to take control over their own cognitive development and success beyond the classroom.

While certain outcomes can still be assessed using ‘standardised, summative tests’, the real outcome is the transformation of the learner that takes place through this process. Through problem-based critical analysis teachers can formatively assess the quality of reasoning, the depth and breadth of research that they are drawing on, the plausibility and persuasiveness of their conclusions, their solutions to the problems that the course has presented to them, and the improvement in understanding that has taken place through the process of learning, analysis, evaluation and reflection. Factual knowledge acquisition is assessed as well, but this acquisition is a necessary precursor to the use of knowledge in addressing problems. A course that is problem-based should ideally equip learners with the tools needed to address those problems. A key weakness of the phenomenological perspectives offered by Mantzoukas and Rolfe is that it is unclear how it could deliver such tools without defining them as such, thereby imposing a pseudo-objectivity onto both the methods and their students’ minds. If we consider that radical epistemic scepticism may itself be the tool that is being suggested, then we will be drawn into a debate about the meta-status of relativist theory in comparison with ‘theory’ in general, and this is not the appropriate place for such an argument. A course that recognises the objectivity of the problem can unite students around that problem and recognise the status of previous attempts to address it. It is worth reiterating that most PBL courses do equip learners with foundational knowledge before the PBL components ask them to make use of it. The critical analysis approach to PBL differs in as much as it draws the problem into the development of those tools.

My own experimentation is still in its infancy, but in my experience of using this method and facilitating problem-based critical analysis in the classroom it is those lessons that reveal the motivation and passion that underlies student responses. In comparison to my previous teaching, which admittedly was guilty of much of the criticism that Leat throws at ‘pedagogies of indifference’, the transformation in student engagement is palpable. In hindsight I simply was not demanding that students think about course material. Of course it did not appear this way to me; from my teacher training onward I had always sought to reach and engage the kid at the back of the class; I believe I had achieved some success in ‘making the subject come alive’, which I saw as particularly important in courses like Politics in which students were being assessed disproportionately on the facts; In Philosophy I sought to reveal the meaningfulness behind the reasoning and challenged students to engage with it themselves. If PBL is to cross into the mainstream its advocates must avoid alienating teachers from within the formal education system by presenting their practice as a straw-man stereotype; the majority of teachers show passion for their subjects and try their hardest to construct AfL rich courses that will inspire it in their students. While I did this too, I simply did not have means available to truly engage students and this was not revealed until they became available and I started using them. For both myself and the teachers I manage, this has added approximately 20% to our schemes of work which has been a struggle to accommodate with courses that have been designed to be content heavy. However, by unlocking student capability at the higher levels of competency (where the marks are higher) and showing them how to use their knowledge more efficiently, we have been able to use those lessons dedicated to these skills much more effectively than we had previously. More fundamental to our teaching however is that it has produced a change in perspective on our teaching, a paradigm shift that once revealed cannot be unseen. It is simply a more effective way of structuring our schemes of work and improving student engagement, performance and skill.

Having introduced problem-based critical analysis into our own curriculum, these additional components to our teaching sound very much like Barron and Darling-Hammond’s accounts of PBL in medicine;

‘the small group’s task is to generate possible diagnosis and a plan to differentiate possible causes by conducting research and pursuing diagnostic tests. The instructor typically plays a coaching role, helping to facilitate the group’s progress through a set of activities that involve understanding the problem scenario, identifying relevant facts, generating hypotheses, collecting information… identifying knowledge deficiencies, learning from external resources, applying knowledge and evaluating progress. The steps in the cycle may be revisited as work progresses (e.g. new knowledge deficiencies may be noticed at any point and more research might be carried out)’ (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2010; p.205). 

The teacher’s role in these phases is to facilitate student development by providing guidance and activities that give it a conduit, but the activity itself is very much student centred. To reiterate and mirror Barron and Darling-Hammond’s analysis of PBL, in this phase of their learning ‘students take an active role in knowledge construction. The teacher plays an active role in making thinking visible, guides group process and participation, and asks questions to solicit reflections. The goal is to model good reasoning strategies and support the students to take on these roles themselves’ (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2010; p.205). These are the most challenging lessons in the learning cycle, demanding that students scrutinise their understanding and thinking, but they soon become the most fun; Savin-Baden draws attention to similar conclusions reached by Olsen (1987) who found that ‘problem based learning was found to be more enjoyable and stimulating by staff and students involved in such programmes’ (Savin-Baden, 2000: p15)

Incorporating PBL into knowledge acquisition through problem-based critical analysis requires restructuring curriculums and reappraising their steps, but when this is done they share most if not all of the characteristics that Boud (1985) associates with PBL. Such curriculums prioritise:

1. ‘An acknowledgement of the base of experience of learners’; When learning is seen in the context of problems, the initial stages of the learning cycle must mediate between student experience of the world and the subject matter being placed before them in order to bring the subject’s problems into the ownership of the student; motivation is essential as a problem that is not perceived to be a problem is not a problem (consider the jam-jar analogy in the deconstruction of critical analysis at the start of this essay; if you are not hungry, your reaction to a stuck lid might be to put the jar down and try something else – solutions require motivation); when the diagnostic function of critical analysis is revealed, it is clear that the responses of unmotivated students to analytic and evaluative questions simply give the appearance of addressing the question without actually doing so. Such engagement can be facilitated in critical analysis phases of learning as well as at the start of a learning cycle, but then there is a requirement for the student to engage with the problem using their prior understanding.  

2. ‘An emphasis on students taking responsibility for their own learning’; as the teacher’s role switches from mediator to facilitator, students are required to take control of their own engagement with the problem; this is the most active phase of learning, and it soon reveals any weaknesses with their engagement in the earlier phases of knowledge acquisition (a student can’t use knowledge that they don’t have).

3. ‘A crossing of boundaries between disciplines’; the use of knowledge in problem-based critical analysis is not vocational, although it does go a long way toward developing the type of skills for which vocational PBL is valued. While HE PBL modules will encourage students to use their knowledge holistically rather than pigeon-holing facts into units of study, in order to promote problem-based critical analysis as a transferable skill students should be encouraged to think outside the topic, to use what they have at their disposal rather than just what they have been told is directly relevant, and to think about this phase of learning synoptically.

4. ‘An intertwining of theory and practice’; once again, problem-based critical analysis can not replace vocation based PBL, but it is a much better preparation for such training than more didactic, less skill-based teaching, and it can help bring PBL into the classroom in ways that its adherents have struggled to do previously.

5. ‘A focus on the processes of knowledge acquisition rather than the products of such processes’; the metacognitive gains from basing learning cycles around problem-based critical analysis is that the process of learning models the process of problem-solving, from research to analysis, from initial conclusions to scrutiny, reflection, testing and final, refined conclusions – and it also reveals key behaviours associated with engaging in the process successfully. It is a concern that PBL in general appears not to promote such transferable skills and I will return to this point below. 

6. ‘A change in staff role from that of instructor to that of facilitator’; through the learning cycle the role of the teacher changes from mediator to facilitator to assessor. It is the second of these that is required in the problem phase of learning.

7. ‘A change in focus from staff assessment of outcomes of learning to student self- and peer assessment’; this is a very important change in the detailed and critical analysis phases, as not only do students need to model thinking to their peers, because it is the most demanding phase it requires a collaborative effort to maintain group momentum. Activities like Socratic Question Tennis (see under the ‘Practice’ section below) can be used to encourage peers to self-facilitate thinking activities that are challenging.

8. ‘A focus on communication and interpersonal skills so that students understand that in order to relate their knowledge, they require skills to communicate with others, skills which go beyond their area of technical expertise’ (Bout cited in Savin-Baden, 2000; p.17-18); again, problem-based critical analysis phases are a great platform from which to go on and develop these skills further in HE or vocational practice.

Because problem-based learning cycles share these characteristics with PBL, they also help develop many of the skills that are associated with PBL. Because of the external constraints placed on mainstream education by the regulators and exam boards, incorporating problem-based learning into their curriculums cannot be as effective in their development as vocational PBL but it will introduce their development more effectively into learning and the importance of doing so into our student’s lives, possibly for the first time. In my initial experiments it is clear that restructuring curriculums around problem-solving can help students to develop in the following competencies associated with PBL courses;

  • Critical thinking skills; systems thinking; interpersonal and self-directional skills that allow them to manage projects; the ability to analyse, think critically, write and speak effectively, or solve complex problems (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2010; p.200)
  • ‘…larger increases in five critical thinking behaviours (synthesising, forecasting, producing, evaluating and reflecting) and five social participation behaviours (working together, initiating, managing, inter-group awareness and inter-group initiating) for initially low achieving students’ (ibid; p.204)
  • Students who take an active role in knowledge construction, more accurate hypothesis generation, more coherent explanations, greater ability to support claims with well- reasoned arguments, and larger gains in conceptual understanding (ibid; p.205)
  • The ability to efficiently gather information and to effectively analyse that information to assess problems and eventually, appraise the overall situation to develop a future action plan (Mantzoukas, 2007; p.245-6)
  • The skills of critical reflection (ibid; p.247);
  • The development of important abilities, such as flexibility, adaptability, problem-solving and critique (Savin-Baden, 2010; p.13);
  • The development of students’ reasoning skills; self-directed learning abilities; independent enquiry (ibid; p.15);
  • Working with others, problem-solving and improving personal learning and performance; well-developed personal and interpersonal skills; market-related skills and abilities (ibid; p.15-16).

At the moment of writing this is largely hypothetical and needs to form the basis for continued research, but there is clear evidence that the opportunity exists to consciously facilitate the development of all of these competencies within the learning model being promoted.

From the admittedly limited reading that I have been able to conduct from within this work-based research, there appears to be a lack of attention from within the PBL community to the construction of methodology by which students can take control over their own development. This might not be surprising given that the pedagogy has been associated predominantly with skill development and the assessment of attitudinal changes, but while undoubtedly upskilling learners there appears to be no clear guidance on how students should go about the task of addressing problems other than, it seems, to learn through the experience of doing it. This mirrors the lack of clarity over definitions of critical analysis, particularly within employment advice, where examples of people engaging in acts of critical analysis are offered more often than coherent explanations of what they are examples of people doing. It seems that in assessing approaches to problems and approaches to analysis, it is a case of ‘we’ll know it when we see it’.

While the use of PBL in critical analysis does attempt to provide both a coherent definition of the skill and a clear route to problem solving, there are trade-offs in that it doesn’t perform some important functions of PBL that are advocated by those like Leat who want to see a more contextual, formative version of the pedagogy adopted in general education. In one of Leat’s case studies he describes how by bringing student development out of the classroom and into an engagement with the community the project helped

‘root students in a wider web of relationships, establish them in their locality and/or specialised community, develop their sense of competence and give them the experiences from which to build healthy identities… promoting well-being. It is defined by Goodenow as ‘the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment (1993, p.80)’ (Leat, 2017; p.13).

Therefore he promotes a dialogic self-theory to stress the importance of ‘engaging with a range of people, both ordinary and extraordinary, during one’s formative years, not just as mentors or role models’ (ibid; p.36). Within dialogic theory, our identity is composed of multiple sometimes complementary sometimes competing voices that are derived from and are in conversation with each other and those with whom we share social relationships, near or distant, specific or abstract. Our identity forms as these voices adjust to different contexts. As part of their formative education therefore, teachers can help students to develop a healthy and rewarding sense of self by directing these interactions and helping shape internal dialogues. If this were a key goal of bringing PBL into mainstream education,  then while it might not necessarily be hindered by the interpretation offered here, neither would it’s classroom based practice be necessarily complementary.

Even so, I believe that there may be important trade-offs to be made in placing less emphasis on this function of PBL. Leat identifies academics who trace the concept of the multiple self back to John Locke (ibid; p.36), but to my mind it resonates more effectively with Aristotelian organicism. Under this political philosophy, our identity is nothing more than the product of the social roles we find ourselves in; a human is ‘by nature a social animal’. Identity forms organically within these relationships, parent/child, student/teacher, coach/coached, doctor/patient etc which we either adapt to successfully or not; in any of these we can be functional, or dysfunctional, and while we may struggle to see ourselves in such terms, we are often inclined to think so of others, e.g. as ‘good friends’, ‘poor teachers’ or ‘dysfunctional parents’. Dialogism brings to mind an existential organicism, in which multiple identities (derived from relationships) are in a phenomenological dialogue with each other, our identity changing as the dialogue progresses.

While dialogism will undoubtedly attempt to help students feel located in their school and society, and there are enormous physical and mental benefits to be gained by making this a priority, the pedagogy does not seem to be a million miles from Vygotsky’s notion of mediation and the two may be able to coexist together quite happily in the acquisition phases of learning cycles. However, if one regards standardised schooling as being the enemy of a healthy sense of self (and if we review the ‘pedagogies of indifference’ there are many good reasons to suspect they are) then this is obviously going to be harder to resolve.

However two things are worth pointing out. Firstly, many of the inherent problems of traditional schooling that Leat identifies are also regarded as problems that need to be overcome from the perspective of the model being advocated here. Secondly, there may be multiple causes that lead students to feel disconnected from school, e.g. the economic, social, cultural and health problems caused by austerity. Involving students and incorporating their socio-cultural identity into the learning process is essential to mediation and motivation (as opposed to offering them models of behaviour that imply judgements on their own place in the social hierarchy, e.g. through the hidden curriculum), but unless performance and success is modelled and guided so that students can attain control over the process the full benefits of inclusion won’t be felt, particularly if they are lower down in their own social hierarchy. To be respected in the social hierarchy may involve acquiescing to roles in the way that Aristotle envisioned, and projects that use outside agencies can help them do this, but teaching them to gain control over the process of their own development can help students bypass such hierarchies and so empower them to choose which relationships they regard as productive or not. This is particularly empowering if their place in the social hierarchy is determined by irrational prejudices, e.g. based in gender, race, or sexuality. In that case, an education that shows students a route out of their circumstances might be worth the sacrifice of an education that takes place within the community. 

Bloom’s taxonomy has also not been without its critics, and as the theory and practice within this essay operate within the taxonomy these criticisms need to be considered. Marzano (2000) points out that the taxonomy assumes that a development takes place from less taxing activities at the bottom of the hierarchy to more demanding tasks at the top, with each new level dependent on the work that took place below and in preparation for it. This is not supported by research as many students display higher-order ability before achieving background knowledge.

It is common in teaching to encounter students of promise who can do a lot with very little, only to be frustrated that they do not have the motivation to move beyond this and develop themselves. An unfortunate consequence of educating students in an unequal society is that students come to us with vastly diverse amounts of cultural capital. Students who have grown up in families that discuss and debate issues, that make demands of and challenge each other’s thinking, are on the whole at an advantage educationally over those who have not had this experience. The starkest influence on educational success is level of income. David Leat argues that one of the greatest barriers to the adoption of an education system that fully adopts PBL is the ‘entrenched self-interest and neoliberal ideology which embeds the power of the privileged and maintains their relative advantage, as those with better social and cultural capital can take best from the system and compensate for its negative effects’ (Leat, 2017: p.22). He clearly associates the entrenched ‘pedagogies of indifference’ and their ingrained tendency to perpetuate inequalities with the social ills that are symptomatic of these stark differences in wealth, like precarious employment and people who live in fear of losing their jobs, homes, security and social status. He argues that people need an education system that delivers the ‘capacity to develop careers, navigate job markets, find opportunities to relate to others, have strong identities and develop resilience’ (ibid; p.19-20).

However, the use that I have made of Bloom’s taxonomy does not assume that students must develop each level of ability before progressing to the next. Students might display a high level of cognitive ability early in the learning process but they need a solid foundation of knowledge and an understanding of how they can use it effectively if they are to make the most of their ability. Assessment often reveals that students who put the effort in to build their background knowledge and struggle harder than their more gifted but less motivated peers tend to overtake them quite quickly in performance. We can support this with the right guidance, showing students how their learning is not an abstract pursuit, how they can bring it under their own control and use it to pursue their own interests.  

As I argued earlier in the main body of this essay, the claim that the structure of the formal education system with its summative demands is necessarily counterproductive to the development of skilled, reflective problem-solvers is a false dichotomy. Besides which, whether conducive to student development or not Bloom’s taxonomy has achieved an almost hegemonic status within the education systems of many countries and defines the educational objectives against which students are measured in their exams. Any pedagogy that attempts to promote student development within such a society has to respect this fact. An acknowledged weakness of PBL is the challenge of assessing progress (Leat, 2017; p.22/Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2010; p.201-2; Mantzoukas, 2007; p.249). Students of PBL could be assessed using Bloom’s taxonomy, but knowledge acquisition would not be regarded as the foundation for the development of higher cognitive skills and this would require a thorough restructuring of the education and assessment system. As Leat admits, established ‘expertise in assessment resides in a particular technology – timed, unseen, individual, mainly written examinations in which considerable care has been given to reliability and item construction… We do not have a publicly trusted and tested system for assessing EPBL… The stronghold of alternative assessment is in vocational education, but this shows little sign of informing academic assessment practices’ (Leat, 2017; p.22). It is worth reminding the reader that knowledge acquisition is a perceived weakness of PBL as it is traditionally understood.

The perspective being promoted here synthesises problem-based practices and subject and classroom based education, assessing progress on levels of competences that are already assessed using the existing qualification system. It would be understandable if advocates of PBL rejected this as a bastardisation of the pedagogy and rejected the claim that it is a step in the right direction regarding it instead as an unwelcome diversion from the true path, but it does share most of the characteristics and delivers many of the benefits of PBL, and in a way that offers students a route map to self-improvement and independence.

Philosophically speaking, the dialectic method ran into disrepute because of the progressive assumption at its foundation; dialectical outcomes evolve from judgements that are less true to those that are more true, yet there may be no such ultimate ‘truth’ or way in which to comparatively evaluate lesser truths. While the sceptical challenge of this postmodern response may undermine the concept of universal standards by which judgements can be measured, when considered in reference to the process of learning itself the evolutionary assumption in dialecticism is more difficult to dismiss. We can dispute the objective truth of our responses to problems, but it is harder to dispute that our students are learning by grappling with these problems and thereby developing their capacity to respond to future challenges; the greater their knowledge base the more tools they have at their disposal to solve the problems they come to face, and both successes and failures change how they approach similar challenges in the future.

L.S.Vygotsky’s educational dialecticism is one that adapts to such relativist criticisms while retaining the idea that genuine learning is taking place. Vygotsky’s dialecticism accepts that the learning process takes place within the socio-cultural superstructure, communicating received ‘truths’, perspectives, ideals and assumptions. Nevertheless, it also sees above this in the way that it highlights the importance of attention and motivation to concept formation. Think of the young child’s lip-biting as they struggle to form associations between play objects. This learning through the effort applied in the exchange between object and idea and its communication to others isn’t acquired from teachers but is self-generated. The problem involved in making these associations requires focused attention or intentionality.

As those who advocate PBL are keen point out, genuine engagement with academic or employment challenges does not involve being told what the solutions are and then learning them. Students must decide for themselves how they are going to use what they have learned if they are going to develop autonomy, intellectual flexibility and the skills and techniques used in problem solving. This requires that they remain focused in the process of using their knowledge to address problems. While a didactic methodology (or a critical theory that condemns it) can equally emphasise the importance of attention, berating students for not learning because they’re not focusing, it doesn’t explain to the student why focus is important in terms that apply beyond the classroom, e.g. in problem solving, and which the student can buy into, i.e. success beyond the curriculum.

Achieving knowledge via self-generated concept formation is dynamic and requires more than ‘direct teaching’ or what Freier called the ‘banking model of education’ by which teachers deposit knowledge in their students. Over twenty years of teaching following Black and Williams’ Inside the Black Box have seen teachers come to construct rich, dynamic, creative AfL experiences to help students learn and get them to remember that learning. But there is a disconnect between this teaching and the preparation of students for assessment. In the UK we focus on and prize retrieval and the repetition of academic arguments as conventionally understood. Testing works to move items of knowledge into long-term memory, but it doesn’t stimulate an investment in the items to be learned and it certainly doesn’t help students to use them when faced with tough academic challenges. Over reliance on writing frameworks and writing to preconceived notions of the perfect response produces writing that appears formulaic and lacking in sophistication because students are simply mimicking academics. Carol Dweck’s research shows that learning is far more effective when feedback focuses on the effort put in rather than the performance put out (Busch & Watson 2019: 14-15). The system described in this essay questions static pictures of knowledge formation that not only fail to motivate but may actually demotivate student learning. All learners can access higher order thinking and writing, what will differ is the knowledge they use and how aptly it is used. The final stage of the learning process is helping them hone this skill, not repeating PEEEL essays according to preconceived notions of model answers.

This theory can utilize the most commonly used aspects of Vygotskian thinking in activities that require the use of knowledge – Zones of Proximal Development and More Knowledgeable Others. While it may avoid the more sophisticated dialectics at the heart of Vygotsky’s theory it does so in favour of simplified metaphors that can be tailored to students’ individual aspirations or interests and show how the process of critical analysis and evaluation and the need for motivation and attention fits into their lives.

Vygotsky says of young children, ‘The motivation that would cause one to resort to written speech are less accessible to the child when he begins to write’. However, helping students understand the role of motivation in their own life success talks to their inner selves in ways that they can understand and allows them to hang the entire learning process on pegs of their own choosing. Motivation becomes something that they can own rather than something demanded of them.

This model effectively communicates a metacognitive awareness that equips the learner with the tools needed to progress in life. It encourages a growth mindset in which failure is to be expected and welcomed, and gives students greater flexibility with regard to problem solving and answering exam questions that are challenging, reducing this to a process that can be practiced and deployed under exam conditions.

The pedagogy I am advancing also has value in that it moves beyond current teaching practice regarding critical analysis by making sense of the distinction between detailed and critical analysis and how they can be used in substantive classroom activities that mediate the development of higher learning and prepare the student for assessment. Thinking of critical analysis as the problem-based diagnostic and dialectical use of knowledge moves beyond the disconnect between the provision of rich AfL experiences in teaching and the static Cartesian focus on retrieval practice and essay mimicry. It bridges the gap between what we do in class and what we demand in exams. Unlike advice that focuses on the artistry of thinking and writing however it also provides an unambiguous procedure for planning and practicing the skill of essay writing that will produce academically rigorous outcomes.

Although I suggests that I could not have arrived at these conclusions without interaction with the object under analysis – my own specific practice – I do believe that these are genuine insights into critical analysis, and yet while I argue that this offers a more refined understanding of critical analysis I am not implying that the picture I am offering dualistically mirrors reality. Critical analysis is a conceptual tool and subject to change through use. I believe I have only revealed how it could currently be used more effectively.

A significant aspect of the evidence by which I have become convinced of the soundness of the findings presented here regarding critical analysis is that upon reflection I have come to believe that all of the conclusions above were arrived at diagnostically and dialectically through my own action research over a number of years. While adopting a dialectic method like action research will inevitably yield the conclusion that it progressed dialectically, it is in how insights unfolded through practice, dialogue and reflection that convinces me that they could not have been arrived at simply through a sustained examination of my students.

It could be claimed that this is interpreting all learning in terms of the learning that was taking place at the time and subjectively interpreting the process retrospectively in terms that legitimise its use universally. However, a static picture of knowledge acquisition does not seem to account for how effectively my analysis changed the focus of my attention over time, nor does it correctly define what the object of that attention was. Year on year in teaching the object of our attention, our students, changes and so too do the problems that we have to address. It often seems frustrating when writing Self Assessment Reports to have to include targets for the coming year based on the performance of last year’s students when you know those problems were unique to that cohort. A static picture of knowledge acquisition would make it difficult to generalise from one class to students as a whole, it would make it appear to be a depressingly fruitless task if one struggled to make connections between the problems of one group and the next, and so could be thoroughly demotivating. However, it is in the cycle of dialectic change that practices adapt from one year to the next and we get a sense of development, evolution and progress. In changing circumstances we can focus our attention on our own teaching practices and what we learn from them – a permanent challenge and object of focus amid changing problems. As stated above, the endpoint of my inquiry into critical analysis was my own perspectival development, the motivating factor being each insight along the way. Unlike epistemologies that argue for a picture of mind that mirrors reality, in dialecticism it is ourselves that become the permanent focus of our inquiry, the problem and the solution. Thinking about the process in this way makes much more sense of learner-centred rather than outcome focused teaching, and to me at least explains my own development towards these conclusions.

Although I suggests that I could not have arrived at these conclusions without a dialectical interaction with the object under analysis – my own specific practice – I do believe that these offer genuine insights into the nature of critical analysis, and yet while I argue that this offers a more refined understanding of critical analysis I am not implying that the picture I am offering here dualistically mirrors reality. Critical analysis is a conceptual tool and subject to change through use. I believe I have only revealed ideas that are implicit in some of its more intuitive interpretations and how these could be reconsidered and used more effectively.

While dialecticism focuses on the practitioner’s capacity to practice, static models of knowledge acquisition also demand training in research methodology to avoid fallacious reasoning like confirmation or observer bias. This training can be used to self-regulate knowledge acquisition, and this can be academically rigorous when supported by peer review. However, this system works little outside of academia where it exists as Quality Control (QC) in the majority of environments. The concept of QC is more restrictive than motivating, and it is limiting in that it only incorporates the idea of self-improvement up to acceptable standards. It is also a consequence of the contractual, zero-sum image of employment relations which pervades economic models as expressed through concepts like efficiency wages. Knowledge acquisition via dialectical self-improvement doesn’t dismiss research methodology, peer review, or QC, and in fact under the diagnostic and dialectic use of knowledge these should be encouraged in order to equally avoid flaws in work and reasoning, but it does add the extra dimensions of attention, motivation and self-improvement. Through its problem-based diagnostic function it is also a more purposeful, efficient form of knowledge acquisition and self-improvement than those that lack such intentionality. Unlike less ambitious managerial practices, I believe that one that attempts to inspire workers to take ownership of the problems faced by a business, that shows them and respects the potential for their own development within this project, could be more productive and more humane in its recognition that its workers have a special investment in themselves and that their employers can play a transformative role in this.

It might also be argued that the scientific method uses knowledge analytically (detailed analysis) simply to understand the world, and from this detailed knowledge makes inferences that predict future observations (hypotheses); while there is learning and a dialectic between the world and the observer, there is neither critical analysis nor a problem to be diagnosed. Some believe for instance that using analysis to make predictions does not mean that it is being utilised in problem solving (Target Jobs, ‘Analysis’, 2019). However, I would argue that the problem that is present in both the classroom and the essay question is also present in and drives the search for better hypotheses – ‘what is the best way to interpret and respond to these circumstances?’. The ‘what?’ of scientific investigation is itself a problem. I would also add that critical analysis as the deployment of knowledge in search of an answer is present and may be inherent in the dialectical process involved in making and testing inferences on the basis of past observations. In any case, whether we adopt a sophisticated understanding of the problematic in learning or not, in exams students are presented with problems and expected to solve them. Critical analysis as I have explained it helps them to do this.

It can also be argued that a perspectival change takes place through an understanding of the diagnostic and dialectic functions of critical analysis as an essential stage between knowledge, understanding and application, and the ability to produce evaluative judgments. This is certainly my own experience and that of the colleagues among whom I have shared this research. Moreover, as the references to the studies below identify, this perspective can coherently tie together a great deal of contemporary research on effective teaching, learning and assessment that would otherwise appear disparate.

Given the change in my own perspective that has taken place through my own learning I am inclined to believe that if we equip our students with the metacognitive tools that I have outlined and inspire them to see the significance of the problems they face in our subjects and the genuine need for solutions, they will come to see the importance of motivation and attention to detail in finding these solutions and we can equip the next generation of workers and academics with the tools they need to find these solutions. Moreover, if we move beyond thinking of work as simply something we do and start to appreciate the relationship between intentionality and effectiveness, employers may come to realise that workers could be more productive if they had a greater investment in the outcome. Perhaps then employers can learn from educators and move beyond contractual, outcome dominated relationships to focus instead on inspiring, motivating and developing their employees.

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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