CHALLENGE EVERYTHING Problem-Based Learning teaches critical thinking skills

In a world plagued by intractable social, environmental and political challenges, students who graduate with heads full of facts are of little use to organizations focused on finding never-before-thought-of solutions. Problem-Based Learning, which teaches students how to find innovative answers by asking never-before-thought-of questions, is designed to bridge the gap.

Anette Kolmos remembers the day her daughter came home from kindergarten and shared what she had learned about water. “Her class talked about why water always fell down,” Kolmos said. “What if they could make water go up? What sort of things might they be able to do or invent if they could just make water go up? By stimulating children’s curiosity through play, by encouraging them to reflect, that is the key to Problem-Based Learning.”

Today, many years later, Kolmos is a professor in Engineering Education and Problem-Based Learning at Aalborg University in Denmark and holds the chair of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Problem-Based Learning in Engineering Education. Problem-Based Learning (PBL), also known as Project-Based Learning, a relatively novel idea 15 years ago, is now a fast-growing trend in many schools and universities worldwide.

It’s a trend driven in large part by the job market, where employers need workers with critical thinking skills, people who can challenge accepted ways and find new solutions to age-old and emerging problems. As new technologies reinvent how things get made, employers in manufacturing and engineering are among the most vocal groups pushing for changes in education.

“Manufacturing has changed so much in the past 35 years, it’s almost unrecognizable,” said Richard Wysk, an engineering professor at North Carolina State University’s Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering in Raleigh. “Students really need to be well trained in a broad set of areas. It’s not simply lecturing to people on a blackboard; it’s putting them in a lab and asking them to create something that was impossible to create before they thought about it.”

Kolmos understands industry’s frustration with traditionally trained students. “Problem-Based Learning is happening because traditional approaches to education aren’t working anymore,” she said. “For example, a recent report in England said that 70% of graduates are unemployable because they’ve been textbook trained. Innovation has become more and more complex, so students need not just technical knowledge but the knowledge of how to apply what they know.”


In a PBL classroom, teachers are not so much instructors as project facilitators. Students take charge; teachers advise. Working in teams, students identify what they already know and then what they need to learn to solve a particular challenge. The teacher, acting as a tutor, guides the process. This “active learning,” case-based format is similar to the medical school approach originally developed in the 1960s at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. Since then, the PBL format has spread to other schools worldwide and expanded to the fields of engineering and design. Some universities also are working to develop PBL programs for mathematics.

Implementation of new teaching models varies by country and region, however. For much of Europe, change is most often instituted from the top levels of education administration downward. In the United States change tends to spring from below, at the classroom level, and work its way up.



In systems highly focused on teacher evaluation, PBL represents a difficult challenge. In some countries, teachers and administrators are paid, evaluated and promoted based on students’ performance. Tenure is on the line in many school systems. But when a team of students at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands came up with a vertical train station as an elegant solution to a transportation problem in a crowded city, how could the individual team members be graded?

“There is extreme resistance among academics to change,” Kolmos said. “Nobody wants to change.” But push for change is growing. Socially, the world needs solutions to challenges of energy, the environment, sustainability and rational economics. From industry, the cry for able talent with relevant skills grows with each graduating class. The voice of industry, Kolmos said, often shouts the loudest and with a single voice.

British company GKN Aerospace, which makes precision parts for most of the world’s major airframe and propulsion manufacturers, is one of the industrial voices calling for change. New materials, innovative technologies and revolutionary processes in modern manufacturing demand new skills among its workforce, its executives say.

“This is a big challenge because you have to think about things in an entirely new way,” Richard Oldfield, GKN’s technical director, told the British journal The Engineer, and that new thinking must start in the classroom. “They have to have access to these techniques as early and as widely as possible, because it’s really by playing around with these suites of systems and toolkits that they create the correct mindset to design in this space and understand the potential of these new systems.”

GKN’s CEO, Marcus Bryson, puts it another way. “We don’t really know what the aircraft of the future will look like,” Bryson said. “But we absolutely know that we won’t be building them the same way we do now.”


The same technological developments that are pushing education to change are making its evolution possible, said Roger Hadgraft, deputy dean for learning and teaching in the School of Engineering at Central Queensland University in Melbourne, Australia.

“The development of technology — such as software that lets students experiment and communications like the Internet — allowing students to collaborate, that has really pushed Problem-Based Learning into something that can be applied effectively,” Hadgraft said. “It’s only when you get students into action that you discover what they don’t know. It changes the students’ engagement with what they are learning. They work out what strategies worked, what didn’t. The ability to work with fundamental questions depends on how well we drive the software. But you have to make up the questions, and people are getting better and better at that. The students ask much better questions. This problem-solving business matters.”

Hadgraft is among those working on the challenge of how to best structure PBL in the classroom. In Australia, for example, most children in early primary education are encouraged to question and explore their worlds. Throughout much of their secondary education, however, young people are taught with traditional textbook and lecture-based methods to earn the scores needed for admission to a university.

After years of rote learning, Hadgraft found that he had to slow down his university-level PBL courses to reacquaint students with the collaborative, inquiry-based, problem-solving educational environment they had experienced in their primary education. Early engineering courses therefore include non-technical matters: interpersonal relations, collaboration, humanities, sustainability and environmental and social issues.

“What’s changed is this humanitarian aspect,” Hadgraft said. “Problem-Based Learning helps to integrate those values into an engineering curriculum.” As a result, he said, more women are entering technical fields, which are coming to be seen as “life-orienting disciplines.”

For Kolmos, PBL harnesses the greatest force of our time: our expanding ability to share knowledge and discuss ideas. “There is no design that is done individually anymore,” she said. “You are not on your own. Understand that global collaboration is so important. The global learning part will take over in such a way that we can’t imagine how it will be.”

by Dan Headrick Back to top
by Dan Headrick

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