Why is Problem Solving Left Out When Practicing Project-Based Learning

When employees are working on a project at the workplace, it is directed to achieve a goal. This goal is usually laced with a series of problems that workers have to tackle before success is achieved. Whether the goal is to produce a part for an engineering project or to develop a marketing plan for a company, the employee is expected to deliver a product that accurately addresses the problem. Any misguided attempt can lead to big losses in productivity and the bottom line. This is why the problem solving part is the most essential step in the entire project and workplaces make sure that employees have the skills, tools, and guidelines to complete the task successfully. By 2020, about four in ten or 91 million Americans will be engaged in project-based work. Yet plenty of evidence exists that schools efforts to transform education towards a more project-based direction, is failing to deliver the most crucial part, how to go about solving the problems that are at the heart of a successful conclusion.

The Buck Institute’s approach to problem solving

The Buck Institute for Education, considered by many as the standard bearers of project-based learning, created the “Gold Standard PBL,” which consists of six essential design elements necessary for a successful project: challenging problem or question, sustained inquiry, authenticity, student voice and choice, reflection, critique and revision. Although each very important for a successful PBL experience, most of these PBL design elements are not focused on how to help students solve the problem. Some of these elements deal with project prerequisites, such as making sure that the question is challenging and can be investigated, that the project is authentic and that students have a say in it. Other elements are dealing with project conclusions, such as the critique, revision and reflection on the outcome. Sustained inquiry is the only element that tries to deal with the problem solving process, and it tries to do so by guiding students to come up with a series of iterative questions, that they will  answer as they attempt to solve the problem. No mention how. It is assumed that students will somehow figure out how to ask the right questions and that they will come up with the right refining questions, that may lead them towards the right solutions.

An example from life

When students rely only on asking lots of questions and refining questions, their chances of arriving at the wrong conclusions are equal to their chances to get it right. Let’s take a simple question that we may all have encountered in life: “Why is my plant yellow?” When students are asked this question, they use what they already know from school and from experience, by observing how plants are handled and watered. Based on this knowledge, they may investigate the role of water in a plant’s well being. This may lead them to understand that excessive watering of plants may cause wilted yellow leaves. A limited conclusion that fails to consider all the other reasons why plants may turn yellow, leading them to the false impression that the problem was solved and the investigation can be concluded. As simple as this problem seems, for students to come up with the right conclusions, they need to learn how to identify all the pieces of the problem, understand how they interact in the project environment, so they can have a clear picture of all the reasons why a plant can turn yellow. These activities require students to engage in building mental models, analyzing, performing tests and other problem-solving activities. A process that clearly requires them to master all these skills.

Students are not prepared to engage in the inquiry process

Tara N. Tally, an educator from Alberta, Canada, experienced this lack of student skill, when trying to implement project-based learning with her students. Her frustration became evident when she was trying to follow the Buck Institute’s guidelines to complete a PBL unit. In a paper titled, “The challenges of implementing project-based learning,” Ms. Tally claims that “a major setback to successful implementation of PBL in the classroom is a lack of student skills needed to successfully complete a PBL unit.” She believes that success depends whether students have been prepared to assume certain roles, such as “those of inquiry seekers and collaborative team players.” As the Buck Institute’s course only helped her establish expectations and learning outcomes, failing to provide students with a way to meet them, she set her mind on supporting learners with scaffolds–tools, strategies, and guides that enable learners to achieve more, reach higher-level of understanding and performance and transfer problem solving strategies more effectively. To that end, she researched and designed rubrics for the following skills sets: communication, inquiry, collaboration, research and activation of prior knowledge, of which the inquiry rubrics is the one focused on improving students ability to analyze, evaluate, and apply knowledge to the problem at hand.  

A goal directed sequence of cognitive operations

It is quite possible that the reason that the Buck Institute and others trying to provide guidelines for project-based learning are trying to stay away from the problem solving part is because research tells us that problem solving skills are domain and context specific. However, according to David Jonassen, whose research has focused greatly on problem solving, “if a problem is an unknown worth solving, then problem solving is any goal directed sequence of cognitive operations directed at finding that unknown.” Regardless of how many problem types there are, the cognitive processing engaged within these classes of problems is similar. Those operations have two critical attributes: the need for problem solvers to create a mental representation of the problem and its context, also known as the problem space and it requires that learners actively manipulate and test their models.

Another possible reason for not dealing with the problem solving part is due to a lack of understanding of the terms that are used to describe it, such as critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, etc. All vague terms that are hard to translate into concrete steps that can be implemented. Although ‘mental models’ is one such term, David Jonassen explains that it “consists of knowledge about the structure of the problem, knowledge of how to perform tests and other problem solving activities, the envisionment of the problem and its constituent parts and knowledge of how and when to use procedures.”

The key to problem solving is how learners represent the problem space

As mentioned above, projects at the workplace are goal oriented. No one engages in a project for its own sake. The growing need of the market for employees who can independently work on projects directed towards accomplishing some goal, was the main driver for schools to shift towards project-based learning. This growing trend seems to have missed the ‘goal’ part. The assumption is that by engaging in project-based learning, somehow students will develop those problem solving, critical thinking, and analysis skills that are at the heart of any project-based learning work. Unfortunately, it does not work that way. Students can spend hours on projects without knowing that they have not arrived at the right conclusions. If we want to turn this into a meaningful experience, we need to make sure that we train students to become better problem solvers by teaching them to construct problem representations that can help them interpret information about the problem and properties of the system, simulate the behavior of the elements in the problem and trigger particular solution processes.


Tally, Tara N., The Challenges of Implementing Project Based Learning in the 21st Century Classroom. 2015. University of Victoria. Retrieved 8/10/2016 from: https://dspace.library.uvic.ca:8443/bitstream/handle/1828/6014/Tally_Tara_MEd_2015.pdf?sequence=5&isAllowed=y

Jonassen. D. H. Learning to Solve Problems. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer, 2004.