A Course of Action

By David Ruenzel — January 01, 1993 24 min read

The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, a distant suburb of Chicago, looms over a street dotted with industrial parks. A massive concrete structure with no apparent windows, the main facility—partially burrowed in the ground— has a severe, somewhat secretive, air. Important work, one surmises, goes on here. At the doorway, a sign reads, “A Pioneering Educational Community.” Inside, past a security checkpoint, I find myself in a cavernous lobby with a flourish of artwork on the expansive white walls. Gray carpet stretches in all directions. Students in jeans and visitors in business suits pass to and fro. No matter where I stand, I can hear the hum of the brilliant lights.

Established in 1985 by the Illinois General Assembly to address a perceived shortage of outstanding science and mathematics students, the academy is a three-year residential public high school governed by an appointed board of trustees. Its 1991 class had a mean math SAT score of 714. The school’s 500 students, drawn from across Illinois, represent diverse ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Admission is highly competitive. Nearly 30 percent of its faculty members hold doctorates. Equipment, ranging from a ProQuest computer system to satellite telecommunications, is state of the art.

Clearly, IMSA seems a futuristic educational outpost. Yet, if Bill Stepien is right, problem-based learning, the methodology that drives much of the school’s curriculum, can help revolutionize even the most antiquated public schools. As director of the academy’s Center for Problem-Based Learning—he’s also a history teacher—Stepien is devoted to making sure that problem-based learning finds its way into elementary and secondary schools both in the Chicago area and across the United States.

A wiry, intense man in his mid-50s, his gray hair combed straight back and down over his collar, Stepien speaks of problem-based learning with an almost prophetic intensity. “We think,” he says, “that humankind is wired, inside the brain, to pay attention to dissonance, to things that don’t seem to fit. We think human beings have a mechanism that demands that they try to resolve such dissonance. If you find problems that engage that hard wiring, I don’t think kids will be able to resist it.”

While many American schools still proceed as if knowledge were the memorization of contextless information, practitioners of problem-based learning insist that information, if it is to be transmuted into knowledge, is best acquired in the solving of a meaningful problem. “Meaningful” is the key word here; for if the problem doesn’t compel students toward a genuine if less-than-ideal resolution, or if the problem is inauthentic in the sense that it would never be encountered in the “real world,” then students are merely playing at inconsequential problem solving.

Stepien makes clear the distinction between problem solving and solving problems: “Problem-solving courses are too often, like, `Let’s brainstorm today, let’s talk about fallacies tomorrow.’ And the problems are often dinky, like, `How does the straw man get from behind the house to the front of the house in the least number of steps?’ What does that have to do with anything? I mean, let’s pose a problem and brainstorm, OK. But let’s make sure it’s a significant problem.”

In the world of the typical American school, which emphasizes the inexorable if tedious coverage of material, problem-based learning, with its emphasis on timely discovery of information, may seem highly novel. In truth, though, problem-based learning has strong roots in the pragmatism of philosopher John Dewey, who at the turn of the century began to criticize traditional teaching and learning on several fronts.

For one thing, Dewey said, children must realize the reason for acquiring knowledge if they are truly to secure it; they must be faced with a problem they truly feel a need to solve. For another thing, information—no matter how relevant it may seem at the time—quickly becomes obsolete. Schools, therefore, must spend less time imparting information and more time helping children acquire thinking skills that will enable them to solve the problems of experience. As Dewey wrote, there is a “necessity of testing thought by action if thought is to pass into knowledge.” Dewey put this into practice at his own Laboratory School by having children, for example, learn mathematics as they constructed a model farm.

While Dewey’s theories were much discussed, they never, with some notable exceptions, much altered the American school. Schools placed too much of a premium on control to tolerate the freedom the new pedagogy demanded. It should come as no surprise, then, that it was a medical doctor—not an educator from within the system—who resurrected Dewey’s ideas and pioneered problem-based learning.

During the early 1980s, Howard Barrows, assistant director for educational affairs at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, was becoming increasingly disturbed by what he observed in medical education. “Students,” he tells me, “were given a tremendous amount to memorize in the first two years of medical school. When they got into their clinical clerkships and began caring for patients, they couldn’t remember much of what they’d learned. What they could remember they couldn’t appropriately apply, so they had to relearn everything.”

Barrows’ discouragement with the status quo led him to a development that is revolutionizing medical education: the use of standardized patients—volunteers who are so thoroughly trained to simulate real patients that medical students usually can’t tell the difference. In order to diagnose and treat such patients, students must retain not isolated facts but be able to apply knowledge integrated from such fields as anatomy, physiology, and chemistry. And they are evaluated on their ability to do so successfully. They also have to learn to work together, seeing each other as resourceful allies rather than as competitors.

As I listen, all of this sounds well and good. But Barrows was, after all, working with highly motivated medical students. I tell him I can’t imagine the approach working very well with ordinary students.

Without hesitation or apology, Barrows assures me that I am completely wrong. For several months, he had been traveling across the country trying to incorporate problem-based learning into the curriculums of public high schools. He says it grabbed even the poorest, most disadvantaged students.

“Everyone,” he insists, “is motivated by real-world problems.”

My conversation with Barrows reminds me of a seminar I recently attended at which educators continually referred to teachers as “content people” and “process people,” as if they were two necessarily alien factions. “Content people” imparted information; “process people” taught thinking skills. Neither group was apparently much interested in presenting to students real-world problems. Problem-based learning seems to be trying to eliminate this dichotomy between content and process by claiming that genuine knowledge always involves thinking upon in- formation discovered in pursuit of a solution to a problem.

When I mention this to Stepien, he grabs my notebook and sketches a pair of scissors. One blade he labels “knowledge,” the other “process.”

“You’ve got to have knowledge and process working together as the blades of a scissor,” he says. “I don’t know why we spent so many years arguing about who was going to teach knowledge and who was going to teach process. Hell, in real-problem solving, you’re going to have to teach both.”

Shortly after my arrival at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, I am seated in a small office off the lobby with two other visitors, scientists from Israel, listening to Stepien explain the background behind the problem we are about to watch unfold. While he and another teacher designed the problem, it’s based—as are all the problems the students tackle—on an actual case. Two weeks ago, he informs us, the seniors in his “Society, Science, and the Future” course learned of an apparent August outbreak of pneumonia in the fictional town of “Centerville.” Causing one death in a matter of days, the illness had not responded to treatment with antibiotics, eventually arousing suspicion that the pneumonia was in fact Legionnaires’ disease. The students, acting as officials in the county Department of Public Health, must determine the best course of action.

Analysis of the problem had begun, as it always does in problem-based learning, with a blackboard divided into three columns. The first column—labeled “What do we know?”—was necessarily short, essentially a list of people who had gotten sick and their symptoms. The second column— “What do we need to know?”—was lengthy: Students knew virtually nothing about the sickness and how it was transmitted. The second column was crucial, for the third column—”What should we do?”—could not be broached until vital information was considered. Because the disease initially appeared to be so much like pneumonia, the students quickly filled the second column with questions, such as: How much pneumonia could be expected in August? What would be the expected mortality rate? Exactly what is pneumonia, and how is it transmitted? Who is most susceptible?

How the students go about answering the questions they have generated is an important part of problem-based learning. The goal is to make students probing, self-sufficient learners. In this problem, because the students were under severe time constraints—more and more people were falling ill—it was particularly essential that they gather information in a highly systematic, efficient manner. To prevent unnecessary duplication of information, groups of students took responsibility for answering specific questions, later sharing the data they discovered with the rest of the class.

According to Stepien, true collaborative learning should require students to bring together disparate bits of information. “In a typical classroom,” he says, “students collaborate for about 60 seconds; the rest of the time they’re discussing weekend plans. The problem is that kids are all holding the same information so there’s really no need to collaborate.”

Of course, the critical information wasn’t tidily bound up in a textbook. The students, under the tutelage of their teacher, had to become creative, persistent researchers. Seeking answers to the pneumonia questions, they searched school and local libraries, scouring through medical texts. Various groups also contacted epidemiologists as well as the county public-health officer.

In problem-based learning, one of the goals of requiring such extensive research is to propel students far beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Indeed, at its core is a vision of the school as a kind of think tank, inextricably linked to a community of experts who act as mentors. Because students must proceed as professionals—in this case as health officials—they had to seek out “real-world” sources: doctors, scientists, and government officials.

Once the students analyzed their pooled research and eliminated pneumonia as a cause of the epidemic, Stepien intervened, presenting the students with an “autopsy report” that clearly indicated Legionnaires’ disease. Once again, in a recursive process that typifies problem-based learning, the students returned to the three columns, the items in each column shifting as the problem came into greater focus. Among the new questions were: What is the source of Legionnaires’? How is it transmitted? How is it best treated? These questions, in turn, sent students back through the cycle of research. Later, under the “What should we do?” column, the students wrote, “Survey the 22 infected subjects to see if the illness can be traced to a common source.”

A well-structured problem demands that students, in striving toward a resolution, take multiple factors—social and scientific, for example—under consideration, and that was the case here. Although the students, in the aftermath of the outbreak, managed to confirm the presence of Legionnaires’ and released a bulletin encouraging residents to see a doctor should symptoms occur, they have neglected, Stepien now tells us, critical public relations functions.

Earlier this morning, he released to the students a stern memo from the director of the state Department of Public Health—this actually created by Stepien—demanding to know why the county officials have neglected to communicate with his office. The memo also asked them why they have not communicated with an increasingly exasperated press, producing “an awkward and potentially panic-producing gap.”

As Stepien briefs us, then, the seniors are, on very short notice, preparing for a press conference. Dave Workman, a physics teacher who will, along with the school’s public relations person, play a reporter, walks in wearing a hat with a placard labeled “press” tucked into the brim. “Let’s go,” Stepien says. “The press is waiting.”

On the stage of another corporate-gray room called “The Pit,” a girl, flanked by two colleagues, reads a prepared statement. She’s composed, making eye contact with the “press” and a video camera sitting in a recessed area beneath the stage. So far, she says, Legionnaires’ has resulted in two deaths; 15 or 16 others have come down with the disease, and 22 others have symptoms. But the public need not panic. Centerville’s water supply has been deemed safe and Legionnaires’, caught in its early stages, can be successfully treated with the drugs erythromycin and rifampin. Furthermore, the county is doing everything possible to locate the source of the bacteria.

The “reporters” begin to inquire. At first their questions, informational in nature, are easily handled; only when they become more interpretative do the students begin to vacillate.

“Why, if the county knows that bacteria often originate in old air-conditioning towers, has it not shut down businesses with those towers?”

“That might cause a panic,” a boy says. “Furthermore, it would be unjust to penalize businesses whose towers may not be contaminated.”

“Isn’t it your duty, as a health officer, to consider public health above all else?”

“Yes, which is why we encourage anyone who shows symptoms to see a doctor immediately.”

“Is that enough to tell, say, an 80-year-old man?”

The students look at one another and shrug.

“What specific precautions can the residents take?”

“There’s nothing really specific people can do,” the girl says. She thinks for a moment and adds, “Just stay healthy.”

At the debriefing session that follows, the “reporters” and teachers evaluate the students’ performance. Coming in for particular criticism is the “just stay healthy” remark. In the midst of what may be a burgeoning epidemic, the comment, all agree, seems superfluous and even cynical; what is needed, to reassure the public, is constructive action.

Here the whole class joins the discussion, trying to sort through a problem that is becoming increasingly complicated and multidimensional. Much of the debate hinges on whether it would be appropriate to close down targeted businesses or to disinfect the air conditioners, or both, raising scientific, social, and economic issues. To peremptorily close down businesses, the more vociferous students believe, may impose economic hardship and subject the board to lawsuits, and to disinfect the air conditioners may obliterate all traces of bacteria, meaning they’ll never find the source. “We’d look like dorks,” a boy says.

As the class ends, the students make several decisions. They’ll consult with a lawyer, for one thing, to see if they have the authority to close businesses; for another, they’ll see if there isn’t a way to disinfect the air conditioners without extirpating the bacteria.

During the discussion, a girl has quietly made what seems a most sensible suggestion: “Perhaps [we] could simply persuade businesses to shut off the air conditioners until the bacteria is discovered.” But this suggestion is passed over; the students are focused on the issue of shutting down businesses. Later, Stepien tells me that one of the things students must learn in problem-based learning is that the loudest students in a group aren’t necessarily the ones who should be followed.

The Legionnaires’ problem is typical of those found in problem-based learning. In the parlance of problem-based learning educators, it is “ill-structured.” In a strange twist of words, it is the ill-structured problem that is well-structured for learning. “Ill-structured” simply indicates a problem that changes form as it is worked on; good problems, such as those in the real world, are necessarily slippery, hard to get a handle on, and as students gather new information they must form new hypotheses to match altered conditions.

A history problem Stepien designed is indicative of this ill-structured nature. Students—acting as military, scientific, and diplomatic experts—receive a memo from Secretary of War Henry Stimson, dated July 18, 1945, informing them that President Truman would like their counsel on a strategy “to force the unconditional surrender of Japan and provide for a secure postwar world.”

Initially, students may be predisposed to see the problem in absolutist moral terms: Is it right or wrong to unleash the power of the atomic bomb on innocent Japanese civilians? Such a question, asked in isolation, can only result in unwieldy, even sanctimonious, debate. But as the students ask narrowing questions, the answers to which they will spend days researching, the problem acquires a rich multidimensionality that may compel students to re-examine their original assumptions. What do we know about the Japanese mentality and the conduct of warfare? How successful has our blockade been in slowing the Japanese war effort? Does America have an invasion plan? If so, what may it cost in lives?

The answers to these questions demand a constant realignment of thought, an easing of doctrinaire positions. While dropping the bomb may seem abhorrent, students also realize that, considering Japanese intransigence, to refrain from doing so would prolong a brutal war. Finally, as is typically the case with the ill-structured problem, students must come to accept the fact that there is no ideal answer; whatever resolution they come to—launching an invasion, for example, or waiting for the Russians to join the Pacific war effort—will be tainted with ambiguities, both moral and otherwise.

Getting students to tolerate ambiguity isn’t easy. “A lot of kids,” Stepien says, “have the conception that when you come up with a solution you make the problem go away, and that’s untrue. We talk about making something unacceptable more acceptable. Improvement through solution, not rectification, is what we’re looking for. The point is that students inevitably must act, regardless of their doubts. What they’ve discovered has to be put to work in resolution.”

Perhaps no problem poses more difficult moral ambiguities to students than “Jane’s Baby.” The problem, thoroughly documented in IMSA’s literature, involves a woman carrying a fetus that has just been diagnosed as anencephalic—a disorder that invariably results, the students discover, in the death of the infant soon after birth. The students, here in the position of heads of pediatrics at a large city hospital, must decide how they should advise Jane Barton and her husband, Ralph, played by school faculty members.

The students begin by carefully structuring questions: Is the test for anencephaly highly reliable? Is abortion possible in this case? Do the personal and religious beliefs of the Bartons permit abortion? What is the law on abortion in this particular state? Further complicating the issue is the fact that tissue or organs from the fetus could be donated to research. Later, the students, cast in the role of members of Congress, will try to push legislation overturning President Reagan’s executive ban on the use of fetal tissue from elective abortions.

As the students gather information, they realize, as in the case with the atomic bomb, that the problem is inherently ambiguous and even confounding. Ideally it leads, as a realistic problem, not to purely speculative debate about the rightness or wrongness of abortion but to an eventual course of action derived from a careful consideration of the many messy particulars. The hope, as the academy materials put it, is that the “ill-structured problem will lead students to a reiterative process of speculation, problem definition, hypothesis formation, information gathering, analysis, and problem redefinition several times before the problem is resolved.” In short, the problem should lead to all the things that catalyze thinking and rethinking rather than rote memorization.

It seemed controversial, even risky, for the school to ask students to tackle the abortion issue. Because the problem demanded that students act as consulting doctors, they were placed in the awkward position of perhaps having to suggest a course of action that could contradict their own deeply held beliefs. Was it fair, I ask Stepien, to demand that students face such a knotty problem?

Stepien thinks for a moment. “We don’t want to indoctrinate students,” he finally says, “but we do want them to consider all the arguments out there—just as they must in the real world. Now, if it’s a case of moral belief, we would rather have their church or philosophical system handle it. If the students want to bring their belief system to the problem, there’s no way we can avoid that.

“In the `Jane’s Baby’ problem, the kids each had to meet the Bartons, to do a consultation. When the patients asked, `Are you suggesting we have an abortion?’ students said, `Talk to your clergy, to your family.’ The students felt patients should make the call.

“We had one student who never mentioned the abortion option; he simply didn’t believe in abortion, across the board. Other students felt they had to tell patients of the abortion option, even as they felt there were better alternatives. The point is that morality has to come in; it’s part of life. But we want a rigorous discussion of morals to take place, not indoctrination.”

Still, it was apparent that bringing certain problems into certain schools is a risky proposition. Stepien wouldn’t want to bring an affirmative-action problem into a recession-savaged industrial city where white ethnics were being laid off, would he?

“Of course not,” he says. “But you could do something else, like with the northern spotted owl in Washington State. Is it worth protecting no matter what, even though it may cost loggers their jobs and way of life?”

Problem-based learning advocates, like a variety of progressive educators, typically operate on the assumption that all children have an innate desire to learn. Those with a less sanguine view of human nature—those who think that even the more conscientious children must occasionally be pushed and prodded into learning—may take issue with educators who think that children simply need to be faced with challenging problems.

Still, teachers using problem-based learning with diverse groups of students seem uniformly enthusiastic about its results. Ira Rosencrantz, a teacher at DeWitt-Clinton High School in Bronx, N.Y., incorporated problem-based learning into a biology curriculum for “slow” 9th graders. Although he was initially apprehensive about giving students the freedom to explore on their own, he found that there was a lot more participation and constructive activity in class. “You can’t just get up in a room and tell these students, `This is the lecture for today: topic, infectious diseases,’ Rosencrantz says. “The good thing about problem-based learning is that everyone must become actively involved.”

Bill Orton, who uses problem-based learning extensively in his 2nd grade classroom at Rawls Byrd School in Chickahominy, Va., says that his students were so taken with solving problems that they even had their parents buy them chalkboards so they could visually represent the challenges. “Of course, when kids have to learn things like the multiplication tables, they just have to sit down and learn them,” Orton says. “But when critical thinking is the goal, kids, not teachers, must be at the center.”

The types of problems Orton uses are reminiscent of those Dewey attempted at his Laboratory School decades ago. One problem has 2nd graders learning the rudiments of algebra by designing and building a geometric dome that will act as an observatory. Another problem, designed to teach students about metamorphosis in caterpillars and butterflies, has students creating a wildflower garden that will attract butterflies. Long before the children begin to plant the garden, they must determine which flowers and geometric arrangements are most appropriate.

Of everyone I talked to about problem-based learning, perhaps no one was more zealous about its potential than Shelagh Gallagher, who, as former associate director of the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., helped develop a K-8 problem-based science curriculum that a number of schools are using.

“If we had problem-based learning from kindergarten through 6th grade, we’d have a most powerful group of learners,” Gallagher says. “If, instead of hand-holding children, we expected them to be responsible learners, they’d accomplish amazing things. They’d have not only improved cognitive abilities but also an improved ability to function, to get things done.”

She talks about a problem-based learning project for 2nd graders that she was involved in. “I must admit, I walked into this 2nd grade project with trepidation because both teachers and students were using a wholly new approach. Yet, I discovered that the 2nd graders were almost the best—open to the notion that they had a problem to solve. This particular problem involved the dying ecosystem of Planet X; the students were mission specialists trying to save it. They started asking questions right away. What’s wrong with the planet? Can we grow plants that will thrive there? What kind of pH levels do we need? How can we transport them?

“As well as these 2nd graders did, they still had to learn and even unlearn a number of things. They had to learn not to expect that the teacher was going to answer all the questions. They had to learn not to raise their hands at every juncture. And they had to learn to take risks and to consider many ideas that aren’t necessarily all right or all wrong.”

If problem-based learning is going to find a permanent place in American schools, teachers as well as students will have to unlearn certain behaviors. Problem-based learning demands, for instance, that the teacher substantially relinquish the role of expert in favor of becoming a kind of metacognitive coach who helps students become attentive to how they’re learning as well as to what they’re learning. And, to a much greater extent, teachers must be willing to allow students to pursue their interests, even if it takes them beyond the confines of the curriculum. As Gallagher says: “If pH comes up, teach pH. You don’t have to wait until the third month of the 7th grade chemistry curriculum.”

Of course, there’s no guarantee that schools will be willing to change even if teachers are; many will have to be pushed into providing teachers with the flexibility that problem-based learning requires. Furthermore, constructing sound problems is arduous and time-consuming; clearly teachers will have to be provided with both materials and intensive training in how to use them. Still, working to bring problem-based learning into the schools seems worthwhile, despite the many obstacles that will have to be overcome.

A few weeks after I talked with Gallagher, she sent me a videotape of the 2nd graders at Rawls Byrd School trying to solve the problem of the dying Planet X. The teacher was Orton—a heavily bearded man with a soft, yet firm, voice.

On the first day, as Orton guided them through the columns of “What we know” and “What we need to find out,” the students seemed unfocused, fidgety. I was unimpressed. But as the tape flashed forward into later weeks, and as the discussion was increasingly conjoined with activity— students shoveling, collecting soil samples—a transformation began to occur. Students, formerly inattentive, began to interact eagerly, lessening the need for Orton to intervene.

After a few weeks of gathering further information, students exchanged hypotheses about what was destroying Planet X. “Maybe,” a girl suggested, “something’s interfering with the seasons.” The students then honed in on the possible effects of discovered volcanic eruptions; perhaps harmful sulfuric acid had been released into the atmosphere.

At the end of the tape, the children sat in a circle, talking about their impressions of problem-based learning. “I liked the hard problems,” one boy said. “We had to do it by ourselves; teachers didn’t tell us all the answers.” Another said, “We got to work in groups, not separately.”

Perhaps a girl best summed up their collective attitudes toward problem-based learning. “We get to talk back and forth with one another,” she said. “It makes us feel like grown-ups.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as A Course of Action