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Problem Based Learning & Gifted Education

Over the next few months, we are highlighting a few different instructional strategies that can help gifted, talented, and creative students stay intellectually engaged, acknowledge what they know, and challenge them to move into deep and complex paths of learning. We continue our series with the curriculum strategy of Problem Based Learning by understanding how it differs from Project Based Learning and by looking at steps to use for implementation in mixed-ability educational settings.

What is Problem Based Learning?

Originally grounded in medical education from the 1950s, Problem Based Learning (PBL) developed out of an instructional need for medical students to acquire knowledge of sciences in authentic ways while developing clinical skills simultaneously. Problem Based Learning (PBL), not to be confused with Project-Based Learning, is an instructional method that poses an ill-structured or open-ended problem and requires students to use inquiry and research to propose a solution.

The goal of Problem Based Learning is to use an authentic problem to help students self-direct their learning through the inquiry process, so they can think and respond as professionals might in the field. Although Problem Based Learning shares many characteristics with Project-Based Learning, a significant difference is that Project-Based Learning usually attaches a product goal to the learning experience (e.g. construct a new aquarium design to meet the needs of an endangered marine species).

Problem Based Learning challenges students to gain understanding surrounding a given problem situation. For example, students may tackle the following problem embedded in the topic of endangered species: “Ocean deoxygenation is reported to be an alarming threat to zooplankton, one of the building blocks of the ocean food web. How might we protect endangered marine life to survive these threats?” In this example, the problem of ocean deoxygenation guides students’ inquiry processes and may yield an assortment of solutions or products, such as new policy, awareness groups, scientific inventions, regulations, or even more unanswered questions! There is a problem to be solved, not just a product to be made.

PBL is a wonderful instructional method to integrate all year long because it can be easily inserted into curriculum topics and help build many college and career readiness skills such as research, communication, perseverance, and creative/critical thinking skills while students become stakeholders through the problem solving process.

How might educators of gifted learners utilize Problem Based Learning methods in a mixed-ability educational environment? 

The key is to find instructional time in your classroom for gifted learners. This step means that we should take a broad approach to assessment of the instructional unit and its parts. Ask yourself, “Where can my gifted students buy back time to work on PBL activities for issues that are relevant and connected to the unit?” Once you have determined blocks of time that gifted students can work on learning experiences in different ways, begin to weave the inquiry based approach of PBL through small group discussions, readings, research time, interviews, product development, and much more.

Begin with a relevant problem that the community, group of people, or topic faces. Next, start setting a calendar or timetable for PBL experiences based on your open spaces of time allotted for gifted students within the learning unit. Set up the problem and provide accountability check-in talks for work completed. This process can be facilitated through learning contracts, observations, exit tickets, reflection logs, and/or peer accountability. As students go through the inquiry and research processes of a designed problem, new questions or learning paths will organically take root.

Start small and set up a Problem Based Learning experience for 2-3 weeks, and based on student interest and progress, extend as needed. The engagement within a PBL experience is best between 4-6 weeks but can extend to full semesters or even a full year. Even in short doses, gifted students will benefit immensely when their reading, writing, research, experimentation, and learning experiences help build their capacity as problem solvers.

Next, learn how to generate learning time for gifted learners through pre-assessments and curricular compacting to open instructional time when gifted students can engage with personally meaningful learning experiences.

Looking for a summer gifted program? With day and residential program options, the Summer Institute for the Gifted offers over 80 problem-based courses in STEAM plus humanities and fitness for gifted, creative, and academically talented students ages 5-17 at program locations throughout the United States.


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