What is Problem-based Learning?
Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional strategy which requires the learners to reflect on their experiences and collectively solve problems. Having its foundations in the constructivist and social-constructivist theories of learning, this approach was developed and pioneered in McMaster University in Canada.
Problem-based learning derives from the premise the problems precede answers. In PBL, the learning process begins by presenting the learners with an engaging problem, question, or puzzle. The learners, then, try to solve the problem as a group, relying on their past experiences and the tools/resources provided to them. In this process, the learners discover and formulate the concepts that the learning experience seeks to transfer to them.
The Corporate Learning Scenario
Learning, in the context of corporate, can safely be assumed to drive towards one end objective—performance support. All the learning, both formal and informal, that takes place or is planned, in the corporate scenario, is geared toward enabling employees to do better in their roles. While some of these learning scenarios are directly related to the three Ps in the corporate—People, Processes, and Projects—others may not always be directly tied to these three. However, they are still geared at enabling ‘better performance’ by informing employees of greening initiatives, corporate social responsibility activities, employee discounts etc. These contribute to the ‘quality of life’ quotient at a corporate and, in turn, create an atmosphere that helps employees focus on their work/performance.
What is interesting to note is that currently, much of the PBL that happens in the corporate is either incidental or informal. Faced with the challenge of meeting revenue targets in a not-so-responsive economy sales teams put their heads together to come up with a new approach that moves their sales figures up to the right. Struggling to meet client turn-around-times in phases of high inflow, support teams are forced to think of cost-effective automation options without impacting the quality to support. Project managers faced with resource crunch in working on high-impact project with competitive timelines, work out smart ways of resource allocation or cost stabilization that they otherwise wouldn’t have thought of.
While the situations presented in the previous paragraph speak of ‘success stories’ where faced with a problem, corporate learners were able to devise strategies, and best practices to deal with the problem, there are umpteen situations where things don’t turn out as rosy. And that’s precisely what learning designers working in the corporate context need to step up to prevent. The gap between the training room, situation and the real-life problems that employees have to face is the crucial divide that needs to be bridged.
Problems and the Corporate Learner
The corporate learner, by definition, is an adult who has received at least 15-17 years of formal education (or more), and has a history of varied number of years of work experience. Also, in most corporate, employees are grouped in terms of their years of experience, skill sets, professional qualifications, and ability to perform certain tasks. These groups or ‘employee bands’ are indicative of the nature, complexity, and business impact of the problems that they need to solve and decisions they make.
As a generalization, it can safely be assumed, that in any corporate, the employee bands are directly proportional to the nature, complexity, and business impact of the problems faced/decisions made by employees--the higher the band in which employees lie, the more complex is the nature of problems that they need to solve and the greater the impact on the company’s bottom line.
Second, the percentage of problem solving and decision making in the share of assigned responsibilities is indirectly proportional to the band an employee is in—the lower the band, the lower the percentage of problem-solving and decision-making and higher the percentage of process-related tasks that an employee performs. Though each action in the corporate context has a bearing on a company’s reputation and revenues, they are considerable lower when compared to the actions of an employee in a higher band.
What this conveys, from a career progression point of view, therefore, is that in order to move up the value chain (indicated by the employee band) an employee needs to gain increasing skills in problem solving and decision making.
The Learning Design Context
Going by the conclusion of the previous sections, then, learning designers are faced with two truths about learning in the corporate context:
- · Increasing competency in problem-solving is a necessary skill for an employee
- · A large section of informal or unplanned learning in the corporate happens through problem solving
The challenge then, for learning designers, is to ensure that they provide learners with learning experiences that are similar to the situations in real life that help learners solve problems and come up with new strategies, approaches that solve the problems at hand. This is why problem-based learning should be ‘the way’ for corporate learning. It provides learners with the experience that is most crucial to their development—problem-solving skills—and is similar to the situations where they learn in their day to day work life. Can there be a better win-win situation?