Problem Solving in PBL, part 1

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This two-part series take a closer look at developing problem solving skills through PBL. The first post will talk about the qualities of a good problem solver; the second will talk about the kinds of classroom environments that encourage problem solving.


Good Project-Based Learning (PBL) should incorporate and build on 21st Century skills that are essential to workplace success. Critical thinking and problem solving are particularly valuable skills, not only in the workplace but also in the classroom.

What qualities make a student a good problem solver?   Among other qualities, a good problem solver:

  • Gathers evidence
  • Analyzes data
  • Draws conclusions
  • Takes risks

This last quality of taking risks underlies the others.  A good problem solver is comfortable with risk, uncertainty and even failure. To complete a project, students will need to gather evidence, analyze data and draw conclusions that go beyond the rote memorization of facts. Rather than employing the “I do, we do, you do” approach, by which an instructor demonstrates a skill or task, and students merely repeat what they have observed, instructors in PBL classrooms empower students to experiment, make mistakes and arrive at their own ways of doing things. This willingness to take risks, and even fail, is at the very heart of creativity.  

In some projects, students may employ the scientific method, or simple trial-and-error. Certainly, both of these methods require a willingness to learn from mistakes. But in PBL, students should be given room to take risks on an even larger scale. Students should be given room, not only to make a mistake, but to question established ways of doing things or even challenge the assumptions of an assignment. PBL encourages “big risks” because a good problem solver is a non-conformist.

In our Problem Solving in Project-Based Learning training, we conduct an activity to teach this concept. Participants are given six toothpicks of equal length, and asked to create four equilateral triangles. Ultimately, the solution lies in three dimensions, rather than two dimensions (the solution is a pyramid, three sticks to create a triangular base, laid flat on the table, with one stick standing up from each joint and leaning in towards a common center).

The solution to this puzzle exploits our tendency to defer to what we think is expected in an activity or assignment. Most people, when given sticks to complete an activity, assume that the sticks are supposed to be laid flat on the table. Our exposure to two-dimensional jigsaw puzzles, even the fact that most brain-teasers come with computer-printed diagrams of the solution, all reinforce this sense that puzzles are always two-dimensional. However, a problem-solver quickly realizes that it’s not possible to form 4 triangles with 6 sticks laid flat on the table, and begins to work in three-dimensional space. The solution requires a “big risk”: the willingness to reject some explicit or implicit expectation surrounding the activity.

So, a good problem solver takes big risks. She doesn’t spend hours in futile attempts to rearrange toothpicks laid flat on a table after exhausting every combination, she recognizes the possibility of three-dimensional space (even if that possibility wasn’t offered, and perhaps, was even discouraged). The task, for a PBL facilitator, is to create the kind of classroom environment that encourages problem solving.


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