Editor’s Note: Dr. Glazer chose to use the term Problem-based Instruction and Inquiry, but my reading and other references to this chapter also use the term Problem-based Learning. The reader can assume the terms are equivalent.
Problem-based inquiry is an effort to challenge students to address real-world problems and resolve realistic dilemmas.
Such problems create opportunities for meaningful activities that engage students in problem solving and higher-ordered thinking in authentic settings. Many textbooks attempt to promote these skills through contrived settings without relevance to students’ lives or interests. A notorious algebra problem concerns the time at which two railway trains will pass each other:
Two trains leave different stations headed toward each other. Station A is 500 miles west of Station B. Train A leaves station A at 12:00 pm traveling toward Station B at a rate of 60 miles per hour. Train B leaves Station B at 2:30 pm for Station A at a rate of 45 miles per hour. At what time will the trains meet?
Reading this question, one might respond, “Who cares?”, or, “Why do we need to know this?” Such questions have created substantial anxiety among students and have, perhaps, even been the cause of nightmares. Critics would argue that classic “story problems” leave a lasting impression of meaningless efforts to confuse and torment students, as if they have come from hell’s library. Problem-based inquiry, on the other hand, intends to engage students in relevant, realistic problems.
Several changes would need to be made in the above problem to promote problem-based inquiry. It would first have to be acknowledged that the trains are not, in fact, traveling at constant rates when they are in motion; negotiating curves or changing tracks at high speeds can result in accidents.
Further, all of the information about the problem cannot be presented to the learner at the outset; that is, some ambiguity must exist in the context so that students have an opportunity to engage in a problem-solving activity. In addition, the situation should involve a meaningful scenario. Suppose that a person intends to catch a connecting train at the second station and requires a time-efficient itinerary? What if we are not given data about the trains, but instead, the outcome of a particular event, such as an accident?
Why should we use problem-based inquiry to help students learn?
The American educational system has been criticized for having an underachieving curriculum that leads students to memorize and regurgitate facts that do not apply to their lives (Martin, 1987; Paul, 1993). Many claim that the traditional classroom environment, with its orderly conduct and didactic teaching methods in which the teacher dispenses information, has greatly inhibited students’ opportunities to think critically (Dossey et al., 1988; Goodlad, 1984; Wood, 1987). Problem-based inquiry is an attempt to overcome these obstacles and confront the concerns presented by the National Assessment of Educational Progress:
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament. (A Nation at Risk, 1983)
Problem-based inquiry emphasizes learning as a process that involves problem solving and critical thinking in situated contexts. It provides opportunities to address broader learning goals that focus on preparing students for active and responsible citizenship. Students gain experience in tackling realistic problems, and emphasis is placed on using communication, cooperation, and resources to formulate ideas and develop reasoning skills.