Teachers who attempt a problem-based learning lesson may be discouraged from trying it a second time if the experience doesn’t go the way they had hoped.  Even if teachers are committed to its implementation, they may be unsure of what steps to take next.

As a district math coach, my challenge has been successfully demonstrating problem-based learning in academically diverse classes.  I am frequently unsure of what to expect as I go into unfamiliar classrooms to work with a variety of students.  An interesting problem that achieves wonderful results in one class causes frustration and anxiety in another class that appeared similar on paper.  These struggles have led me to come up with four C’s that I believe teachers should focus on to improve their success with problem-based learning: communication, curiosity, critical thinking, and content knowledge.

Insufficient communication skills is a problem from remedial classes where students have low self confidence to honors classes where students may believe that only numerical answers matter.  When students are uncomfortable asking questions or expressing what they know it is very difficult to move forward.  Math Practice 3 of the Common Core State Standards explains it well as students must be able to “justify their conclusions, communicate them to others, and respond to the arguments of others.”

Fortunately students love to talk (perhaps not currently in math class) and with the right environment and teacher encouragement, this can be worked on.  Students need to feel that their classroom is a safe place to state their opinion.  Strong explanations need to be recognized as much or more than correct answers.  Teachers need to become masters at asking the questions that facilitate rich math conversations.  Transitioning students to this environment does not happen overnight but the rewards are worth it.

Somewhere along the line, many students lost their desire to wonder about the world, how things work, and life in general.  Without speculating on what is causing this, I have observed that this abandoned curiosity poses a significant challenge to student engagement during problem-based learning.  Many students are unfortunately too comfortable being spectators in the math classroom, and rekindling their curiosity will help them persist through challenging problems.

So if lack of curiosity is a problem, how do you teach people to wonder again?  I don’t have a perfect answer, but my current best guess is showing them interesting multimedia and having them come up with questions.  Dan Meyer’s 101qs.com website is a fantastic source of this kind of resource.  Who can look at the penny pyramid or enormous sink hole and not want to know a little more?  What if you began every class with a picture and had students come up with a question to share with their classmates?  I believe that over time their curiosity would grow, and if you reached a point where they just had to know more, then you know you are getting them back on track.

Critical Thinking
The critical thinking process is rarely comfortable or convenient.  Many students do not like the struggle, yet most successful people excel at it.  Perhaps Dan Meyer best summarized critical thinking’s importance during his TED talk when he stated “What problem have you solved ever, that was worth solving, where you knew all of the given information in advance? Or you didn’t have a surplus of information and you had to filter it out? Or you didn’t have insufficient information and had to go find some? I’m sure we all agree that no problem worth solving is like that.”

What I have found to be the main problem is that students are overwhelmed by the abundance of information and lost without the explicit directions they have been trained to expect.  We have to retrain them how to think for themselves.  Geoff at emergent math has a very helpful blog post that includes his five step approach to implementing problem-based learning.  I have found his step 2 “Students brainstorm ‘Knows’, ‘Need to knows’, and ‘Next steps’, all the while being guided by the facilitator to generate the intended learning outcomes.” to be very useful in developing students’ critical thinking.  I strongly agree with his recommendation for using a Problem Solving Framework to help students build these skills.

Content Knowledge
In a textbook, problems are neatly arranged so that students have been introduced to all the content knowledge they will need to solve it.  If they have forgotten anything, they have convenient examples to reference that will help them get back on track.  With problem-based learning, students work around a real-life math application involving a variety of interconnected skills that may not have been covered.

Teachers may need to facilitate conversations to help students identify the prerequisite knowledge and skills.  This may require several cycles of pausing the problem-based lesson, reteaching necessary content knowledge, and returning to the problem.  The key difference here is that students should be the ones to identify their deficiencies, request the new knowledge, and assess whether they have learned it by immediately being able to apply it to their problem-based lesson.

It is important to note that students are not the only ones who will need strong content knowledge.  One of my favorite aspects of problem-based learning is sharing the wide variety of solutions students come up with.  Often times students find approaches I hadn’t considered.  This is where strong teacher content knowledge is critical.  At a minimum, teachers’ content knowledge must be strong enough to understand students’ diverse explanations.  Ideally teachers’ content knowledge is strong enough to help students make connections between the various approaches.

To prepare, teachers should consider multiple solution paths to every problem-based lesson they implement.  It may help to save student work for future reference.  Also realize that students may come up with an answer you will need more time to think about.  It is OK to tell a class that you haven’t ever seen a student approach the problem in that way and want more time to think about what the student wrote.


In conclusion, my hope in sharing this reflection is that teachers who are refining their practice with problem-based learning will realize that it is a valuable process that benefits students and takes time and patience to implement.  If you have any thoughts on what I wrote or feel that there are other “C’s” worth focusing on, please let me know in the comments.


  1. I really like your four C’s as outlined here, Robert. They play equally important roles in helping teachers and kids reap the full benefits of the PBL. Often times I think the problem with unsuccessful implementation is when we teachers try to find cures for the wrong diagnosis. We wonder why kids aren’t staying on task when we really should question the lesson itself, the hook of the lesson, or the “curiosity” that you’ve cited here.

    I have seen a solid lesson gone awfully wrong in one classroom and wonderfully well in another because of teacher confidence. This takes time, and it’s important that teachers reach out to find that support from others.

    Not sure if this is another appropriate C, but I think “commitment” is vital as it lends itself to the idea of perseverance, not just for students, but for teachers also. Teaching is tough! It’s only rewarding because we’ve committed to doing something really challenging and amazing.

    Thank you, Robert.

    • These are all good points, Fawn. You are right about commitment. Much of teaching innovation comes from a teacher’s intrinsic motivation. Also, your thought about “why kids aren’t staying on task” makes me also think that “Classroom management” could be another C too.

  2. We are 91 coordinators and I have just shared with them this website!
    I am from Brazil – Monte Alto/SP.
    I am responsible for 27 public schools in my region(Jaboticabal SP).


  3. Thanks for sharing, Robert! I completely agree with the four C’s you outlined. I hope to learn more about how I can implement problem-based learning more effectively in my own classroom, even if it might take more time and patience.
    This is essential in helping students develop their problem solving and critical thinking skills!

      • Thank you! I checked it out and I ordered it. I have asked my professor at Texas A & M-Commerce if I may review it as part of my coursework. I’m working on my masters in Educational Technology Leadership. The class is called Technology and Inquiry-based Instruction. We are wanting to answer what do we need to know in order to evaluate whether or not PBL is an effective method for fostering the ISTE Standards for Students? I hope she approves the book!

        • Awesome. Hope that worked out. Evaluating “effectiveness” is complex because there are so many variables involved and it’s even challenging to determine what “effectiveness” even means. For example, if it raises standardized test scores, is it effective? If it helps kids become better problem solvers, is it effective? If it helps kids love math, is it effective?

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