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


1.  It is also worth highlighting the dual function of comparative analysis; while it is often used to improve understanding (for example comparing plant and animal cells) it is also used critically e.g. when comparing relative merits.

2. This pedagogy puts engagement in and metacognitive awareness of the learning process at the centre of teaching practice. Metacognition, reflecting on the learning process as one engages in it, has a positive impact on stress, sense of control and grades regardless of gender, age or ability (Chen et al 2017). Students put more effort into lessons when they are told that they are developing skills that will help them in the future (Reeve et al 2004). When they do not value or can see no point in what they are doing, performance drops (Jang 2008). Praising student persistence rather than their ability has a positive impact on performance, resilience, and mental health (Mueller and Dweck 1998). Having a growth mindset – the belief that you can and will improve – and a sense of purpose have positive effects on resilience, effort, mental wellbeing, achievement and retention (Robins and Pals 2002; Paunesku et al 2015). Since the early 1970’s Rowe has advocated the need to allow wait-time when asking students questions to allow them to consider their responses (Rowe 1972).

3. The rationale behind this phase is to help students take ownership of the challenges related to their learning so that they find the motivation to address them easier to achieve later in the learning episode. Even so, Carpenter and Toftness found that there was a 12% increase in retrieval of information from subsequent learning when students are given pre-questions before a learning episode (Carpenter and Toftness, 2017).

4. This can utilise Vygotskian concepts of More Knowledgeable Others (MKO) and Zones of Proximal Development. Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD) are those areas in which the student is challenged by but can complete learning activities with guidance from a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO). It is the zone within which they are challenged to bridge the gap between their own understanding and social concepts and knowledge. The concept is drawn on in scaffolding in which the teacher provides the student with activities that enable them to access the learning challenge. Such activities should not be over supportive so that the student becomes dependent on it and their capacity to learn independently atrophies (Teaching Times, Vygotsky lives); as I have suggested, PEEL paragraphs help students understand the structure of academic writing and the taxonomy of learning objectives but if not abandoned in favour of more sophisticated approaches to addressing challenges they can student students’ development. The MKO, more often than not the teacher but also fellow students who are further up the rock face, can see where the student is and where they need to be and can provide the mediation that they need to traverse this gap. The activities that I have promoted in this essay can only be delivered by an MKO, someone who understands the subject and students enough to inspire the motivation needed to address its challenges. Many studies have shown that testing and retrieval practice helps improve memory and therefore the amount of knowledge at a student’s disposal when tackling problems (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006; Smith et al, 2016; Dunlovsky et al, 2013). Retrieval questions should incorporate testing of previous learning where appropriate as this can take advantage of the spacing-effects uncovered by Cepeda et al (Cepeda et al, 2008), an effect that has been understood as early as 1880 by Hermann Ebbinghaus; Doug Rohrer’s research has highlighted the effectiveness of spaced review (testing that covers multiple previously learned topics) rather than blocking practice (only testing the learning that has just been completed) (Rohrer & Taylor, 2007).

5. For an understanding of the utility of elaboration to achieve deeper learning look at research conducted by Mike Pressley (Pressley et al, 1987).

6. These were taken from Andrew Chandler-Grevatt’s book, How to Assess Your Students (Chandler-Grevatt, 2018).

7. The following research was collated by Bradley Busch and Edward Watson. I am not drawing attention to it to support the propositions made in this essay but because I believe that the perspective on learning being promoted here ties together a wide variety of accepted truths about effective education. Studies have confirmed that low-stakes retrieval practice through regular testing improves learning to a greater extent than most other methods (Roediger and Karpicke 2006; Smith et al 2016; Dunlovsky et al 2013) – regular retrieval used for problem solving is low-stakes as it becomes a part of the learning process rather than a measurement of success. Elaborative interrogation whereby students are made to think about what they are learning, asking themselves ‘why’ something might be the case, also improves retention (Pressley et al, 1987) – this is integral to critical analysis as described here. Pre-questioning, asking students about what they are about to learn before that content is delivered, is also an effective aid to learning (Carpenter and Toftness 2017) – as I have stated it can be used to stimulate interest and motivation. When students have to prepare themselves to teach others they learn more effectively than preparing for testing (Nestojko et al 2014) and this insight can be utilised when engaging students in team-based questioning or problem solving activities or when preparing students for assessment activities whereby they are presented with a problem; when students have to explain how they used their knowledge to solve a problem that knowledge will be embedded more deeply. Streaming students according to ability only benefits those students in the top streams (Parsons and Hallam 2014) – differentiation according to ability is unnecessary under the model I am proposing. Feedback is more effective if it focuses on the process of learning (Kluger and DeNisi 1996; Hattie and Timperley 2007) – the pedagogy that I am promoting whereby students focus primarily on the diagnostic use of and dialectical growth of knowledge rather than their outcomes is process focused.

8. Developing resilience in students should focus on building their personal standards, optimism, intrinsic motivation, self-talk – how they reflect on their performance, and focus on what is within their control, providing a facilitative – between comfortable and relentless – learning environment, and helping students focus on what they can gain and how they can gain it (Fletcher and Sarkar 2016). Self-talk that is impersonal and reflective (‘You have…’) rather than critical or defensive (I have…’) has a positive impact on mental-wellbeing and performance (Kross et al 2014), and learner centred learning that focuses on how a student uses their knowledge rather than what they achieve through this use can help in that respect. There are numerous studies that advise teachers to focus more on effort and less on ability (Zhao et al 2017; Lin-Siegler et al 2016; Tsay and Banaji 2011). Teachers with a growth mindset whose feedback focuses on strategy rather than outcome improve student motivation and produce greater improvements in student performance (Rattan et al 2012). Students display resilience when they are able to put what they are doing into perspective and feel that they have control over this process (Holdsworth et al 2017), which seems to be what Black and Williams had in mind when they promoted formative assessment (Chandler-Grevatt, 2018: 28). This control over learning and the resilience that emerges from it also appear to be central to the concept of academic buoyancy, the ability to overcome academic challenges (Martin et al 2010). Students appear to benefit from picturing the process of learning rather than the outcomes (Pham and Taylor 1999). Understanding and practicing the process of learning as using knowledge to solve problems can help in the development of a stress mindset, the belief that stress can be good for you, which can in itself reduce stress (Crum et al 2013), and can give students control over the process, reducing uncertainty over the outcome and with it stress (De Berker et al 2016). There is a reciprocal relationship between emotions and achievement, with positive emotions leading to higher achievement and visa versa (Pekrun et al 2017). All of these insights cohere with and can be utilised in the pedagogy that I am promoting here.

9. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and perhaps we could read that as ‘sense of necessity’. The celebrated physicist Richard Feynman who, despite his many achievements and ground-breaking contributions to theoretical physics and applied engineering had only achieved an IQ score of 125 at school, said ‘I was an ordinary person who studied hard. There are no miracle people.’ Distractions caused by mobile phones, music and even excessive note-taking have been found to have a negative impact on learning (Thornton et al 2014; Perham and Currie 2014; Peper and Mayer 1986). Losing concentration in class obviously has a negative effect on learning (Wammes et al 2016). Conversely, teachers who remove distractions from their classroom and maintain a purposeful, orderly learning environment with high expectations of students see that it has a positive impact on performance across socio-economic backgrounds (Agasisti et al 2018; Beland and Murphy 2015). Unsurprisingly resilient teachers who show passion and enthusiasm for their subject and their teaching make the most effective teachers, more so than consideration of their educational background (Duckworth et al 2009). Teachers who have higher expectations of their students typically have those expectations confirmed (Rosenthal and Jacobson 1968). The diagnostic element of this pedagogy highlights the importance of attention and motivation and can draw on the insights of all of this research.

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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