“The style of PBL units is designed for teachers who are willing and able to hand over control of the classroom to the students.” This chilling statement is found in the core of the article “How to Buy a Car 101,” an overview of Problem-Based Learning.
The article describes a project for 7th graders where they are given a few specific criteria for a fictional car purchase and then must research, assemble, present and defend their choices. The final product covers four state math standards, and is graded according to a simple rubric. According to the author, the teachers “no longer act as the experts; they serve as a resource.”
The authors’ students research the requirements and available options (car and financing) on the web, and then present their findings using Powerpoint. This is not feasible in all classes, partly due to the classroom setup (few computers, little experience with Powerpoint) and partly due to limited experience by the students. (It’s been my experience that at the middle-school level, kids are still as a whole relatively unsophisticated regarding technology. In my own class recently, I had to explain what Excel was.)
The project is fascinating, and my impression of it is that if you can pull it off, it’s wonderful for stimulating discussion and high-order thinking. Some drawbacks, as I see them:
- For 7th graders, the project is relatively complicated, including the commuting distance of the fictional car purchaser, is budget, his target down payment, and the current interest rate.
- How much time do you want to spend teaching and coaching Powerpoint? And what about showing students how to use the web?
- In some areas, students have no Internet access at home. Of course, this means they will have to use the library, but does this give an unfair advantage to the kids with broadband Internet in their own bedrooms?
- Powerpoint is not available on all computers, and actually costs money to purchase. If a student has a computer at home, will he be required to buy a Powerpoint license?
I was happy to see the author list a set of warnings of her own. She says you can never be overprepared; you should get the help of the students for planning future units; and be sure not to do the students’ work for them.
One very interesting note: during the project, the students developed a relationship with local car dealers, who bring new cars to the school for the students to see. They also “kept in contact with the students about any incentives and promotions they might find interesting.” This sounds a lot like indoctrination and commercial promotion to children, and I would want to be careful with this.
1. Flores, C. (2006, October). Using Friday Puzzlers to Discover Arithmetic Sequences. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 12(3), 161-164.