Problem-Based Learning

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Erec Smith:

"If we were to apply empowerment theory to pedagogy, it might look like problem-based learning (PBL), which is student-driven and focuses on engagement with real problems from real stakeholders. For one of my courses, “Communication in Professional Cultures,” I spend the first half of the semester exploring rhetoric, professional writing genres, and the importance of empowerment theory and emotional intelligence in civic and professional life. These discussions are then put into practice as students are asked to examine a concrete situation using mindfulness and metacognition (the intrapersonal), an understanding of context and competing interests (the interactional), and an ability to work as a team to discover and convey practical solutions (the behavioral).

PBL accomplishes several things. First, it demands reality testing; a problem cannot be solved if one refuses to acknowledge the contexts in which it arises. Second, it provides a locus of control that allows the components of empowerment to emerge by forcing students to develop agency and efficiency. Third, it enhances diversity and tolerance because all involved have to work together to get the task done, irrespective of their identity.

Political scientist Kurt Burch argues that the democratic, deliberative, and interpersonal nature of PBL means it will improve “the participation, achievement, and enthusiasm of women, minorities, introverts, and those frustrated by the competitiveness and alienating isolation fostered by typical classroom instruction.” Burch believes that the relationship between participation and diversity is reciprocal—that each enhances the other. Why? Because “problems are vehicles for learning… Problems transport students from the classroom to tangible, real-world situations that stimulate their curiosity and creativity.” Identity has to be transcended or, at least, de-emphasized in most cases to achieve authentic and effective solutions. Stakeholders just want the problem solved; they don’t need it to be solved “blackly” or “whitely.”

Problem-based learning is so conducive to true empowerment that it can be effective beyond the classroom. In an essay for the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum argues that collaboration is the way to transcend current societal divisions:

Get potential protesters of different political views into a room and ask them, “How are we going to protect our state capitol during demonstrations?” Ask for ideas. Take notes. Make the problem narrow, specific, even boring, not existential or exciting. “Who won the 2020 election?” is, for these purposes, a bad topic. “How do we fix the potholes in our roads?” is, in contrast, superb.

At the local level, people with apparently disparate values, attitudes, and beliefs can nevertheless collaborate to address things that actually matter and yield benefits that improve the lives of all concerned in the process. Joy DeGruy argues that what she calls “improvement science”—a societal PBL similar to that described by Applebaum—could help assuage or remedy Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. This societal PBL is a “learn-by-doing” approach, she writes, that has the fundamental goal of ensuring that “improvement efforts are based as much on evidence as the best practices they seek to implement.” This approach can “zero in on the problem quickly and involve engaging with partners and stakeholders from the beginning of the process and throughout the life of the project.” This requires “an outward focus that investigates how the environment, history, and human systems have created the problem that is in need of solving.” The self-absorption of a narrow focus on the primacy of identity precludes a clear understanding of the social and material realities that need to be addressed.' (