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PBL: Thoughts on the “Role” Effect

July 9, 2011

I was asked recently to speak about the effect of personal perspective on how a problem is approached by the learner in a PBL approach. To begin with, the concept “problem” (P) can be described as being equivalent to the difference between a current situation (Sc) and a desired situation (Sd) or goal, and this difference becomes a difficulty as it is multiplied by the number and size of the obstacles (O) that stand between these.

Given this initial definition I have also added that this difference and the related obstacles would be much easier to overcome if one has the appropriate knowledge (k) and the resources (r). Let’s face it; what may be a major problem for some will be a mere inconvenience for others – if they have the means to throw at it. This would then imply that as stated above, “problem” (P) may first be equivalent to the obstacles (O) between a current situation (Sc) and a desired situation (Sd) or goal, but it is also inversely proportional to the amount of relevant and useful knowledge (k) and resources (r) that are readily available. The more knowledge one has about a situation and the best solutions, and the more resources are readily available, the lesser the problem!

Finally, all of these are highly dependant on the personal perspective of the one facing the problem. For example, in the case of a train accident involving a chemical spill, many people will arrive on the scene very quickly. Although they will likely all recognise an extremely serious problem, they will all see a different one. The paramedics will see the human casualties as lives to be saved and people to be treated. The firemen, will quickly assess the situation and the risk of fire or explosion, and will react accordingly. The chemical emergency response team will see the liquids spreading and will work with the environmental protection group to first contain the damage, and then to prevent further spreading while preparing for the urgent cleanup. And this list of individuals goes on.  Although each will bring his or her expertise to bear on the overall solution, what is important to realise here is that each individual at the same scene, will see a different problem, or at the very least, the same problem but from very different perspectives. These perspectives are determined by the roles (R) each one plays in the scenario, and these roles are determined by training and experience.  Thus the obstacles, the situation, the knowledge and resources each brings to the problem, are all entirely dependant on the Role (R) of the individual trying to solve the problem.

Although this is absolutely not intended as a formal representation of the concept it is intended as a means to illustrate the principal elements involved in the notion of Problem.
Bringing this back to PBL or problem-based-learning, the implication is that it is not sufficient to present a complex, ill-defined problem to students for the approach to be successful. The tutor needs also to clearly identify and discuss the role the learners are to take. This was easy to do in PBL implementation in medical schools, as the assumption is simply that all the problems are approached from the perspective of the medical doctor. A similar assumption is made in PBL implementation in engineering programs. Where it gets complicated, is in schools, in the K-12 system, where the learners have not yet adopted a specific overall “Role”. One has to be artificially given by the teacher or tutor, and this then implies that the knowledge and experience of that “Role” has to be aggregated and organised by the learner – and this is in itself a first critical learning opportunity not to be overlooked. From that perspective, the learner also has to assess the “Problem” and select the obstacles to be overcome. The potential discussions around these two points offer some of the most powerful opportunities for the learner to bring in and be confronted with new elements of information and then to test these against their own individual, personal cognitive structures and prior knowledge. In a Piagetian sense, this fosters “assimilation’ and “accommodation” – or learning!

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