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.