Most teachers will agree that cooperative learning activities are highly beneficial for their students' learning. They know that students benefit from working together, discussing varying opinions, and learning alongside a peer. Yet teachers often realize that to truly make cooperative learning activities deep and meaningful learning experiences, it will take something more than simple group work.
This desire for in-depth learning is the exact reason Problem Based Learning (PBL) is regarded as one of the most beneficial cooperative learning activities available to the elementary classroom.
PBL is defined as "...an instructional (and curricular) learner-centered approach that empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a defined problem," (Savery, 2006). Since the “problem” that students will be solving is generally interdisciplinary in nature, learners are challenged with integrating content and skills across a variety of curricular areas.
PBL benefits all learners by providing a unique, differentiated, and challenging task. Teachers and students alike have found that the rewards of PBL are:
- Authentic, real world tasks that pique student interest.
- Opportunities for cooperative work require students to work together to solve problems.
- Interdisciplinary study connects curricular content areas.
- Challenging tasks motivate students.
- Core problems require both critical and creative thinking.
The only limitation on scenarios and topics to study for PBL is the teacher's imagination! The possibilities are endless for designing engaging problems, connecting curricular standards, and creating formats for gathering and sharing information. Teachers can introduce PBL in their classroom by first devising a problem that will engage students and integrate curriculum standards. Once these foundational pieces are established, the teacher can plan cooperative tasks and assign groups to find solutions for the problem. Although this may seem like an overwhelming process, it doesn't have to be. Here's an example of PBL in the elementary classroom, which we love for its simple, organic nature!
Attracting Butterflies to the School Garden: The Perfect PBL Lesson for Spring!
- The core problem second grade students will be tasked with solving is how to attract butterflies to a new butterfly garden in the school courtyard.
- Students will work on cooperative learning activities in small groups assigned by the teacher. This is important to ensure that groups are balanced and that a positive cooperative learning environment is present.
- The class will visit the school courtyard to observe its current state and take notes about what is planted in the garden.
- The groups will then begin researching what attracts butterflies to a garden. This will be done using a variety of materials including library books, gardening and butterfly manuals, and the Internet.
- Once the groups have determined what attracts butterflies to a garden, they will work together to design a blueprint for the new butterfly garden. They may choose to draw a schematic or create a model.
- The groups will also be given time to complete a written explanation of their plan highlighting what they think the butterfly garden should contain and how this will attract butterflies.
- Finally, each group will present their ideas to the class and provide an oral explanation for their design of the butterfly garden.
The tasks outlined in this sample PBL will be challenging to students and will require them to use a variety of skills to solve the assigned problem. Implementing PBL in an elementary classroom is highly beneficial to all students—not to mention lots of fun— and will challenge all learners to do their best to solve the problem.
Try it and let us know how it went!
Savery, John R. (2006) "Overview of Problem-based Learning: Definitions and Distinctions," Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning: Vol. 1: Iss. 1, Article 3.
Photo courtesy of State Library and Archives of Florida.