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Form is no longer sacred, but the philosophy behind PBL is

Form is no longer sacred, but the philosophy behind PBL is

EDview project: searching for PBL of the future

MAASTRICHT. The Problem-based Learning system of the future is flexible, adapted to individual study programmes, and with room for lecturers' personal interpretation. The inescapable seven-step approach is no longer sacred, but there is a framework within which everyone at Maastricht University must work.

This is the most important conclusion from the EDview project - an initiative by the department of Educational Development and Research (FHML) and EDLAB: the Maastricht University Institute of Education Innovation - which went in search of a PBL system of the future during the course of last year. The project team asked lecturers, students, curriculum developers, managers, education experts, policy makers and managers about their experiences at the UM. This was done through interviews and a quantitative survey (last Spring) in which more than 1,700 employees and students participated.

“This conclusion is not new, there is already considerable variation, things like skills training, project-based education, research projects,” says project leader Janneke Frambach, who works for both EDLAB and the department of Educational Development and Research. “But until now, a lot happened under the radar. You notice that lecturers who don't use the seven-step approach completely tend to sometimes keep that quiet, while many of them still put the student at the centre and a lot of attention is given to co-operation, two of the cornerstones of PBL.”

The form is no longer scared, but the philosophy behind PBL is, says Frambach. That is all about contextual learning (based on a problem), constructive learning (an active learning process in which knowledge is linked to already existing knowledge), collaborative learning (peers explaining the subject matter to peers), self-directed learning, (students/graduates see gaps in their knowledge and take action for further schooling: life-long learning). These four aspects - together with the aim of a teaching block - determine the framework in which everyone can get to work.

So, there is a lot of freedom, but how do you ensure coherence at the same time, both within a block and within the programme as a whole? “Lecturers have told us that a teacher community is a real necessity,” says Frambach. “It would be good to exchange approaches in order to build up a culture of quality. But how to go about this? Practice and research have shown that this is difficult. There is no point in laying down the law from above, that won't work. It would be good if the person in charge took the lead.”

Before we get to that, there are two issues that are of vital importance, says the project leader: “We need to get everyone in Maastricht going in the same direction, and I'm not just talking about students, lecturers and curriculum developers, but also, for example, those who work in marketing and communication, who produce the brochures and provide information.” For every target group, EDview has created a list of dos, don’ts and don’t knows (what do we need to investigate further in order to determine if we should continue along this path). Thus the 36-page book (in addition to which there is also a position paper and a summary with main points on a single A4 sheet) for the curriculum developers states that they should involve students in their work, that they should take into account that they are creating education for the future generation (dos), but that they shouldn't concentrate on the “grades” (a don’t): “They are the poorest form of feedback.” The education co-ordinators must not use student evaluations as a justification for veering from the PBL philosophy (another don’t). On the other hand, they are encouraged (a do) to communicate intensively with colleagues in order to safeguard the coherence of the study programme. Lecturers are urgently advised, among other things, to share their experiences, ideas and struggle with students with their colleagues. But also to create a safe environment in which students can freely exchange ideas.

And as far as the managers are concerned (a do): create a culture that values and appreciates education. But also (a don’t): do not employ people who don’t support this educational philosophy. 

Last but not least, “certain conditions are required to allow this change to work. Employees are constantly saying: look at the workload, it is already too heavy. This project can only be successful if members of staff are given the room to implement it. This is not just an appeal for extra money, but also to sometimes spend existing money differently.”

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