We plant seeds, but they make them grow

December 12, 2003

Facilitating rather than teaching lies at the heart of successful problem-based learning, says Maggi Savin-Baden.

"Mummy, why do the clouds move?" my three-year-old asked as she climbed on to a chair to get a better view. As I struggled to answer, I reflected that asking questions is a complex ability, but so is knowing at what level they are being asked.

Three times in the past week I have been asked, in different contexts, to give my view on the position of problem-based learning (PBL) in UK higher education, to suggest what a centre for excellence for PBL might look like and what the "sexy" issues in PBL are.

Over the past five years, PBL has flourished in the UK in ways far removed from the original models proposed at McMaster University in Canada in the 1960s. Despite this, there are still controversies.

Assessment is one of the most contentious. Curricula in which PBL is central to students' learning tends to be constructivist in nature because students, to a large extent, make decisions about what counts as knowledge and knowing. What undermines such learning is assessment, mainly because tradition dictates that students are not competent to determine how well they or others are doing.

Such unilateral staff control is at odds with the process of education and ultimately breeds intellectual and vocational conformity in students. Thus the form of assessment many people adopt in PBL may be an essay, open-book exams or even multiple-choice questions. These are used mainly to keep the university happy and professional bodies at bay. But when you ask lecturers what they most want, they say less marking and more use of self, peer and collaborative assessment. Modular study programmes are to blame because lecturers have to assess students at the end of every short module. Indeed, piecemeal modular programmes disable student learning so much I wonder why no one has the guts to drop them.

The other problem is the tradition of rewarding students with individual grades. Many universities do not allow peer assessment to count for more than 20 per cent of the overall mark in any given module. The result is that, although many students educated to work in professions are required to work and learn in teams, they are not encouraged to see the value in other forms of assessment. So perhaps the real difficulty is the way our university system is set up with outcomes, objectives and staff who are controllers and patrollers of knowledge.

Staff power and control is a real challenge to PBL programmes in which lecturers "facilitate" learning rather than teach. Debates reverberate worldwide about whether staff need to be subject experts or not. Some people argue that subject experts find it more difficult to maintain a facilitator role than non-experts. But a facilitator does more than ask open-ended questions, adopt an "I'm interested" body posture and create a cosy atmosphere. A facilitator has to encourage a team culture in which students can balance tasks and process as well as discuss and criticise.

The very idea of a facilitating "role" is problematic. It is as though lecturers have to assume a false identity to stop being too subjective or getting involved with students. No one wants a facilitator to create a dependency culture, but to deny the interplay between facilitator and students is naive. Facilitators and PBL teams tend to shape and challenge each other. While most teams will meet the minimum learning objectives of the programme or module, they will do so in different ways because of the team dynamics and the academic positioning of the facilitator. The growing number of "how to" and "hints and tips" texts may make lecturers feel safer as they set out to become facilitators, but they do little to help them examine how their stances and positions affect students.

Facilitators can oscillate between issuing directions to students and saying very little. Some speak of sitting on their hands, looking out the window or mentally planning their social life while "facilitating" a PBL team. Such strategies are designed to prevent them from interfering with the learning or giving incomplete explanations to difficult questions - a bit like dealing with my three-year-old.

"So, Mummy, why do we have to share the sun with Australia?" she said as I finished my explanation about the clouds. "I suppose because they like planting nasturtiums, too," I replied.

Maggi Savin-Baden is principal lecturer at the School of Health and Social Sciences, Coventry University. Her latest book, Problem-Based Learning , is published by SRHH/Open University Press.

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