Should future learning be problem-based?

Tertiary Education Futures
Publication Date
Carl Gombrich

It is now widely recognised that, from both theoretical and practical perspectives, the old ways of structuring knowledge in a curriculum by dividing learning into academic subjects or disciplines can look antiquated. 

From the theoretical perspective, the internet – with its hyperlinks and networked knowledge – has made us all aware of the historically conditioned or even arbitrary nature of dividing subjects into discrete units like English, Sociology and Biology. Knowledge, in the phrase popularised by Peter Morville, is intertwingled and its categorisations contingent. From the practical perspective, when 86% of graduate employers ‘do not care’ what degree students studies at universities, why do we insist that they continue to study almost exclusively in such disciplinary categories. Is there a better way? 

Enter Problem-based learning – or PBL. Many readers of this blog will be familiar with PBL. Its history goes back at least to Dewey and his ideas of practical education, and PBL has been a stalwart of medical education for some time*. The basic idea – that humans are, fundamentally, ‘students of problems, not disciplines’ and that this should be reflected in our education systems – has support also from Karl Popper, the great 20th-century philosopher and, of course, it has been tried in many schools and colleges all over the world

If PBL has such solid support from so many perspectives, why hasn’t it caught on more? 

I think one of the main issues is that we don’t really know what progression looks like in PBL – outside of disciplines. My colleague Dilly Fung, Pro-Director for Education at the London School of Economics, describes this as the challenge of creating a ‘throughline’ in a curriculum. We know what it looks like to get better at solving maths problems or problems in medicine. But problems related to sustainability? Or poverty? Or migration? There seems to be a class of problems – often called ‘wicked’ problems – which, although arguably of most importance to humanity, are hard to pin down in the sense of knowing how we are getting better at tackling these problems. At the London Interdisciplinary School, the new university being founded in London, we want to approach this educational problem head-on. We believe the current education system is not serving many students well and wish to equip them better to deal with the sorts of big, complex and important issues they will encounter after graduation. 

At the centre of our curriculum, but changing each term, is a ‘problem statement’, running through a central 18-credit module. This problem statement could be related to sustainability, AI and ethics, public health or another real-world complex problem. These statements are scoped by faculty, according to our collective expertise, and students have some choice in the final statements they choose to tackle. This central, problem-based module is strongly supported by ‘methods’ modules from across a wide range of arts and sciences: scientific experimental method, writing methods, statistical methods, data science methods, ethnography, arts methodologies etc. All students encounter this range of methods in year 1 and then are allowed to refine and take further their learning of specific methods in years 2 and 3, though never abandon entirely either all science/maths or all qualitative methods. 

We will also teach explicitly some ‘inter’, ‘post’ or ‘supra’ disciplinary thinking such as Systems Thinking, Mental Models or Superconcepts. But note that we do not wish to teach a rigid post-disciplinary methodology – that would defeat the object of allowing students to shape their own curriculum and advance their interdisciplinary understanding – processes we think best suited for the sort of creative problem-solvers and radical lifelong learners we would like to graduate. 

We are thus committed strongly to interdisciplinarity and to each student shaping their own approach to problem-solving through collating and connecting their own suite of methods. We ask students to articulate and evidence their approach as fruitful through the various assessments we set in relation to the problems. These may be written reports, videos, campaign strategies etc. Our assessments will look for enriched interdisciplinary understanding of the problem and thoughtful, sometimes even original, ways to tackle it. This approach requires a rethink of the curriculum as a network of connected concepts and methods, individualised and capable of being narrated and owned by the student. Each such knowledge network is individual but coherent (a property of networks in general) and better aligned both with the interests of the student and with the exploding number of ‘hybrid jobs’ required in today’s knowledge and digital economies. 

We do not underestimate the challenge of reframing how we think of knowledge structures and their relevance to the lives of our students. Old categories and old metaphors die hard! But nothing really worth doing is easy. We need new ways of thinking, visualising and speaking in order to support our students in the sort of problem-based education which is closer to their interests. And an interdisciplinary, networked curriculum is an important step. 

*Note there are sometimes distinctions made between ‘problem-‘ and ‘project-‘based learning. However, both are distinct from more traditional subject-based learning and start with students considering a problem to tackle or a project to complete which cuts across two or more traditional subjects.

Carl Gombrich is a co-founder of the new London Interdisciplinary School, where he is Academic Lead and Head of Teaching and Learning. He was previously Programme Director for the Liberal Arts and Sciences (BASc) programme at University College London (UCL).

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