“PBL is a kind of minidemocracy”


You don't need to tell anyone at Maastricht University that problem-based learning has a lot of advantages. But will a democratic society work better because of it? Do students learn skills that will make them more involved citizens? Teun Dekker, professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences Education, believes so. To test this out, Observant asked him to discuss PBL, democracy and Europe with a number of his students.

The block that the UCM students have just completed is called ‘History of Western Political Thought’, in which they talked about Europe, among other things. The subject matter is clearly still in their heads when they light-heartedly joke about Hegel (Wilhelm Hegel, the German philosopher) as they enter the classroom. Dekker kicks the conversation off. “The liberal arts have a history when it comes to teaching people about citizenship. It was Cicero who said that the artes liberales should teach civilians all they need to know to be able to participate in society. I am convinced that those conversations are still necessary in a present-day Europe. I also believe that problem-based learning teaches people how to have a conversation. Do you also believe that?”

“I do,” says Tijmen Severens. “PBL is a kind of minidemocracy. During a lecture, you are passive. In PBL you are critical and inquire about the other person's ideas. By sharing thoughts, you work together towards a shared objective. Just like in a democracy.”

“There is always someone in your group with a controversial opinion,” says Andela Draganić. “At the beginning of the block, everyone is angry with that person, at the end you have learned to listen. You are more open to other opinions. For example, we had a discussion once about soldiers who did not follow orders. Most of us felt that sometimes they couldn't but ignore them. After all, you still always have your humanity, you can't just torture someone? One person felt that a soldier must always obey. That is why you are a soldier. During the pre-discussion, the conversation was extremely intense, but during the talk afterwards we had more understanding for his arguments.”

“It is sometimes easy to dismiss someone's opinion as silly,” says Joost Boswinkel. “But then you start to read the literature and you begin to understand where someone is coming from.” According to him, it only works if people are prepared to change their opinions. “If everyone comes in with the idea: I'm right and I must convince the others, then you won't hear what the others are saying. Sometimes you have to admit that you were wrong.”

To do so, you have to feel comfortable within the group, says Dekker. “And if you don't, you should say that,” says Phineas Shapiro, “difficult, to say something like that to twelve people that you see every day, but it is something you should do.”

He wants to know if his fellow group members had to get used to PBL. “It doesn't work for me if someone else tells me what is important,” says Belle Boss. “I have to be able to form my own opinion.” Boswinkel already worked within a group at secondary school with whom he discussed the subject matter. “Only after he started doing that, did his grades rise. I find PBL very pleasant.” “In the beginning, I found it tense to share my own ideas, but the learning environment is ideal,” says Edith Vos. “I experienced a tremendous intellectual development since I started studying at UCM.”

Has it also changed the way in which you have (political) discussions with your own family and friends, Dekker's asks? Certainly, the students answer. “It makes you less defensive about your own ideas,” says Boss. “I notice that when I'm reading the literature, I am already thinking about how I can formulate something, because I know I will have to have an opinion during the discussion.” “When you formulate the learning objectives, you have to put a lot of information into a couple of sentences,” says Draganić. “You learn to explain complex matters in a simple way, that is very important for a democratic discussion.” “If you want your argument to make sense, you have to be able to collect your thoughts,” says Boswinkel.

The discussion takes on the direction of Europe, how democratic it is, what are good reasons to be in favour of it?  “We see that an institute that we have grown up with and that has brought us a lot, is not as democratic and transparent as we thought,” says Boswinkel. “Why can we then still appreciate it?” “Because the values and standards of the European Union reflect what we learn from PBL. Despite the internal problems, the EU promotes liberal democratic values,” says Rufus Busse.  “It has prevented war within Europe,” says Boswinkel. “Within the EU member states,” Busse makes a subtle distinction. Boswinkel grins. “An important distinction. It brought the member states peace and prosperity.” “We are at least talking to each other,” says Boss. Busse adds: “The world is becoming smaller and smaller, a nation state can no longer keep up the pace by itself. They need the support from the EU. But consideration must also be given to the individual differences.” “Unity in diversity,” says Dekker. “The EU's official motto.”

The block coincided with the victory of the Dutch party Forum voor Democratie in the Dutch provincial elections. In his victory speech, its leader Thierry Baudet mentioned the owl of Minerva, a metaphor by Hegel – the man who came up so often during the group discussions. “His quote wasn't quite accurate, but that is a gift, when current affairs connect up so well with the subject matter,” says Dekker.

The students would welcome a pro-Baudet opinion in the tutorial group. “In that case, the discussion would reflect reality,” says Boswinkel. “Then you can discover what someone's motives are.” Boss can imagine why people turn against the elite: “The worst feeling in the world is feeling excluded. In that respect, I understand why populists are so popular.”

Could the students use their acquired knowledge and skills to bridge that divide? “You don't need to change everything, even reaching ten people would be quite something,” says Draganić. “If everyone enters into discussion with people in their surroundings, then it should be possible.” Busse: “We have the advantage that we have learned about the political philosophies that form the basis of the system. So it is up to us to pass on that information in an easier language.” “Many people at UCM want to change the world,” says Boss. “I think dealing with discussions in a PBL manner is a step in the right direction.” “Penetrating to the core of what you feel,” Boswinkel concludes. “It allows a democracy to function better.”

This article is part of a special about Europe with Martin Paul, President of Maastricht University as guest editor-in-chief.

“PBL is a kind of minidemocracy”
Teun Dekker (on the right) with his students