Teachers’ Roles in Learning & Problem-solving

Stephen Downes recently referred to a paper written by Kelvin Tan and Cynthia Lim Ai Ming, entitled No Subjects, No teachers, No Schools, No Peers – Just problems: Arguments for a minimalist approach for maximising the scope of problem-based learning (PDF). This paper is a good review of why the process of learning, especially problem solving, should be separated from subject-based curricula, teacher-assessors and peer pressure in education.

My only criticism is that the authors have not referred to the excellent work conducted by Dave Jonassen, author of Learning to Solve problems: An Instructional Design Guide. One of Dave’s remarks that has stuck with me is that as adults, most people are paid to do only one thing – solve problems. Neither our school systems nor most of our training programs prepare people to solve problems.

Tan and Lim Ai Ming make some very strong comments in favour of the separation of content (subject & disciplines) and process (learning & problem solving). They begin by stating that, “The authors of this paper suggest that the retention of subjects or disciplines in PBL is an unnecessary obstacle to students’ learning”. The paper is then structured around these premises:

  • Learning should be based on problems, not subjects.
  • Subjects stress content rather than process
  • Individual learning is authentic [and group work may hinder this learning]
  • When the teacher is also the assessor, then the power to fail students may be detrimental to self-directed learning
  • Teachers as content experts (such as at a university) may be detrimental to self-directed learning.
  • Scheduled class times, as in any regulated school, are not supportive of problem-based learning.

In a recent interview on EdTech Talk, David Warlick talks about how the web has greatly increased the amount of available information. No one can master any content field any more. Now we see students having better access to information as well as access to more people than many of their teachers. I am referring to students who may be using IM and VoIP to chat with their friends in Asia, while the teacher is covering Asian social studies in class. The student just checks with the online friend and gets the information in context. Which information is correct – the textbook or the online peer? It doesn’t matter. What really matters, for their lifelong needs, is that students are learning how to learn and how to solve problems. However, mastery of the curriculum (content) is what the school administration assesses.

A similar content focus is seen in corporate e-learning. “Let us put your content online” some vendor may cry. We also have industry shoot-outs; to see who can convert PowerPoint content into e-learning courseware. It’s all about content because it’s easy to build a course based on defined content since there are no messy, individual, radical learners to get in the way. Only a fictional, generalized target population. My experience is that neither the public educational system, higher education nor the corporate training business have made any great achievements in facilitating learning. In many cases learning occurs in spite of the obstacles presented by formal training and education.

A shift in emphasis away from content delivery changes the role of the teacher/trainer. As Tan and Lim Ai Ming note, teacher as assessor and teacher as facilitator may be conflicting roles. The same goes for teacher as expert and teacher as guide. The separation of trainers and assessors is common practice in the Canadian military, where the trainer is responsible for assisting each learner, and a separate group (the Standards Section), confirms that operational standards are met through summative evaluation. When properly implemented, it is a good training system.

Today there is no shortage of information on most subjects. However, many graduates lack critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Facilitating the development of these skills, not mastery of a defined subject area, should be the role of educators and trainers. I believe that this will only happen when they abandon the roles of assessor and expert and become true learning facilitators.

7 Responses to “Teachers’ Roles in Learning & Problem-solving”

  1. Brian

    Re: Teachers’ Roles in Learning & Problem-solvingHi Harold,

    Nice entry. I would add that the problems must also originate in the students. In my own experience, the kinds of problems that students present are often directly connected to real life issues while problems created by teachers are often more abstract in nature. I have seen problem-based approaches to teaching that are really nothing more than disguised content – another way of presenting the underlying curriculum. You know – the dark magic! So the origin and source of the problems that are explored is an important consideration. Change this and a number of other changes (e.g. – assessment, what an “expert” really is, artificially imposed timetables, etc.) will naturally come about.

    However, changing that one powerful underlying assumption is a very significant undertaking indeed.

  2. lis

    i think that all the material that a cuold find, any of those tell something concise, or something spotting tho direct point of which are the roles of a teacher, none of them including yours, show me the exact roles that a teacher has to fulfil en the classroom towards its students. please a really need information about roles of teachers, i will really apreciatte your information, thank you, and it is not irelevant your text but in my opion there is information that is missing here, and this information is very important, however i am not unsatisfy with your informed text.

  3. B.sivalakshmi

    As Teachers in classrooms also minimise their roles to solve the questions only and not developing thinking among students

  4. Sulekha

    Problem solving skills are absolutely essential and it is something that most kids do not start to learn until they are well into their education.
    The majority of children’s lessons focus on memorization.


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