Problems to challenge tradition
The approach of problem-based learning (PBL) has expanded professionally and geographically in the six years since the first edition of this book, bringing with it increasing sophistication as well as misconceptions and misapplications.
Most of the contributors to this new edition have direct experience of PBL. They are keen to challenge traditional notions of education and expertise, setting out alternatives which inform curriculum design and which are far more focused on the skills and process of learning, and this should give the book wide appeal.
The origins of PBL lie in medical education, where the sheer amount of subject knowledge and technical innovation outstripped the lecturing hours and learners' capacities within existing programmes.
A curriculum designed along the lines of PBL is seen as an (or the?) effective way of developing professionals who are able to integrate theory into practice in flexible, responsive and appropriate ways. Innovation is seen as necessary here because professionals in every field need to be able to adapt to, and participate in, change. They need to acquire the skills to be self-directed learners as well as the skills of communication, critical reasoning, a logical and analytical approach to problems, reasoned decision-making and self-education.
Since PBL entails more than just the inclusion of case studies in a traditional curriculum, a large section of the book is devoted to issues, problems and experience of implementing curriculum development and change, with examples in different fields such as mechanical engineering, architecture, and legal training. However, effective attention to process lies more in delivery than design and there is less attention to the tutor's role, issues, direction and experience of skills development on the part of staff.
The authors are keen to make the case for PBL, but they have also given space for sceptics. Colin Coles's chapter, "Is problem based learning the only way?" lifts the discussion (too grounded in the problems?) into a broader context of learning theory.
Coles introduces a contextual learning model which offers a framework for elaborated learning. He points out that a number of different approaches, such as experiential learning and reflective practice, fit this framework as well as PBL. In his view, traditional methods such as lecturing can be modified to meet the conditions. Are we better advised, then, to ensure that we incorporate such principles into our designs and practice, than to go for PBL root and branch?
Overall, the book is certainly to be welcomed, and not just by those in professional education. In the current context, where so many learning programmes have been narrowly formulated around NVQ assessment criteria, it is refreshing to grapple with questions about the teaching, learning and assessment of process skills, and to refocus attention on developing the curriculum in order to enhance learning.
Dr Jill Hardman is a senior lecturer at Solihull College