26 April 2014

Problem-Based Learning

Law can be taught with problem-based learning. Students may be given scenarios with legal implications and asked to produce solutions. Although there are prescribed techniques and standard approaches, this model offers the scope for individual learners to use their own research and answering methods. The key distinction with enquiry-based learning is the giving of a set problem. In later posts I explore how inventive students may combat even this mild rigidity. But in this post I simply explore two forms of problem-based learning.

1. Problem-Based Learning, Explored

Tutorials in legal education comply with problem-based learning (PBL) techniques: students are asked to prepare an answer to a legal problem; answers are discussed in a tutorial, where a tutor will propose a ‘right’ answer and resolve other queries.

This model is contentious. Many students assume the law delivered in a lecture or found in a single textbook will provide a sufficient answer. They are right. But an answer so derived will be shallow; and this method excludes many elements of learning that are fundamental to scholarly development. This learning arrangement has a much wider scope than bare-compliance suggests. To prepare fully for tutorials, students may resort to broad and myriad sources and settle on whatever mode of enquiry they desire. This indicates there are two modes of problem-based learning, which are discussed next.

2. Category Two: Problem-Based Learning

The foregoing paragraph should first be expanded. There appear to be two perspectives with which students might approach PBL, and two ‘prior arrangements’ with which PBL may be designed. These choices result in four PBL combinations:
  • Creative
    (i) PBL may be exciting and request--and expect--a creative answer, which standard is attained;
    (ii) PBL may be presented in a dull manner but allow for--and receive--students’ creativity in its answer;
  • Dull
    (iii) PBL may ask a dull question and allow students to provide dull, shallow answers;
    (iv) PBL may be delivered inspiringly, but receive dull answers.
There are many reasons why either possibility might occur. Except to suggest that engagement and motivation have more influence than other factors, I will not expand on those reasons here. The post's remaining sections discuss how PBL may be delivered to inspire and to gather creative responses.

3. Two Divisions

It is pertinent to separate problem-based learning models from a sub-type, problem-question-based learning models (PQB). Both sit in the PBL category. The division is confusing because they rest on the same vocabulary. The biggest difference between PBL and PQB is most obvious when students actually study under either course-type. Problem-based learning is more open than Problem-question-based learning, but problem-based learning may use problem questions. Just as enquiry-based learning (EBL) presents more scope than PBL for students to experiment and autonomously become engaged, PBL presents more scope than PQB.

When students answer problem questions in a PBL curriculum, better results are intended and expected than when PQB is the main course-influence. From the roman-numerical scale in section 2, above, true-PBL begins at (i), while PQB begins at (iv). My approach here reflects my wider scheme--to create disparate groups with good and bad attributes, respectively, and to show how one is inferior to the other while proposing the superior model for legal education. (Although this dichotomous approach is not the most rigorous scholarly method, it is convenient for now, and makes it easier to explain EBL in blog format. So I will continue, guilt-free, because it gets the writing done.)

3.1 Problem-Based Models

Education according to this paradigm asks students to resolve given problems with research processes they (individually or collectively) devise or choose. Students learn through pre-determined issues how to create a rigorous investigative framework. It is acceptable for that framework to reflect and wholly emulate an existing process, such as IRAC (Issue, Rule, Apply, Conclude--see below). The important feature here is the creative licence given for the answering stage--which may be exercised or ignored, but either course must be chosen.

3.2 Problem-Question-Based Models

Although the difference here is subtle, adding ‘question’ may lead to an insidious form of education, with little scope for student-ingenuity. Problem-question-modelled curricula ask students to apply previously or concurrently taught knowledge in prescribed arrangements to pre-identified problems. Students, therefore, are given little freedom, which conflicts with motivational theory.

That lack of freedom is likely to destroy the motivation that EBL is intended to secure. This may happen, during a legal education, if a course informed by IRAC is ill-managed. IRAC teaches students to identify a problem’s Issues and the relevant legal Rules, and to Apply each rule to each issue before writing intermediate and final Conclusions. There is little prima facie wrong with this structure itself, but if it overrides other pedagogical concerns and is not delivered with guidance, students may begin to think they are expected never to deviate and, worse, to think that only one right answer exists.

4. Wider Potential

If, before instigating IRAC or other PBQ-models, students are shown that such models can helpfully structure answers and research, more open enquiry may afterwards ensue. Bill Hutchings and Karen O’Rourke elucidate this idea: “If [students] find recommended structures work for them, fine; if not, fine” ('Evaluating Learning Change: How Third-year English Literature Students Adapt to Problem-Based Learning' p 12). If IRAC is presented as one structure among alternatives, the process of students choosing a structure renders PQB similar to EBL, along with its benefits. (This demonstrates a continua of overlapping pedagogies--see Introduction to Open Education section 2 §1.)

Hutchings and O’Rourke phrase this idea well:
Use the liberation of the learning method to release students’ creativity; don’t reject one form of rigidity (traditional tutor-led methods) to replace it with another. (…) Thinking about [education] in terms of Enquiry-Based Learning rather than Problem-Based Learning may enable us to re-address some of the basic principles of the method and adopt processes that are genuinely aligned with those principles and with the nature of the discipline. (‘Evaluating Learning Change’ p 12.)
The discipline’s nature, referred to here, might best be explained in Gottschalk and Hjortshoj’s words (though note that a specific discipline need not be defined):
After all, most of us entered and have remained in our fields of study because there are so many interesting questions left unanswered, so many lines of inquiry still unexplored. Accumulated knowledge is satisfying in its own way, but the unsolved problems and unresolved debates are what make fields of research continually fascinating and creative. Knowledge and authority might constitute our stature, but investigation is what keeps us interested. Within these fields of inquiry we write to pursue and report on our investigations and to exchange views with people who have similar interests. (Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj, The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines p 22, emphasis added.)

5. Conclusion

Problem-based learning sits between enquiry-based, and basic-socratic learning models. As the paradigms I discuss are fluid, PBL may adopt principles from either of its neighbouring pedagogies. This can produce curricula espoused by Hutchings and O’Rourke, and Gottschalk and Hjortshoj, quoted above. Or courses may sink into educational searches for questions and answers. I explore this latter option--the basic-socratic model--in my next post and suggest that it may be salvaged for productive education.

Created: 14 May to 30 August 2014. Version 1.0.

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