More than two millennia ago, the Greek thinker Aristotle believed that knowledge begins with experience. The mind, according to Aristotle, is what gives the “intuitive leap” from uncertainty to knowledge. The word knowledge, which is epistemê in Greek, is translated as scientia in Latin. The 21st century is often described as the knowledge-based era. Knowledge is growing at an ever-increasing speed. However, it is fragmenting just as fast and will continue to do so if we do not know how to integrate learning from different disciplines and develop strategies for deep learning of things new and important to us. Knowledge takes on a new dimension today. We need a new science of looking at knowledge and information; we also need a new art of learning.
Problem-based approaches are about learning to confront an ill-structured situation—a situation where we are uncertain about data, information and solution—and mastering the art of intuitive leap. That is why in PBL processes the mind of the learner is the focus of the tutor. We make our thinking and mind visible through dialogue. The Greek word for dialogue is dia-logos. Logos refers to the making of meaning. PBL is about creating meaningful learning through inquiry and through a rich variety and channels of dialogue. Through collegial critique, self-evaluation and reflection, we sharpen our mental tools in problem solving. We repeatedly talk about PBL cycles and stages, such as the identification of problems and the analysis and hypothesis stages. In the real world today, many poor decisions and undesirable consequences are a result of the failure to collect and establish facts. We emphasize systematic thinking and logical thinking. In the analysis and hypothesis stages, PBL students learn through a process of conjectures and refutations. Unlike traditional problem solving, where students tend to work towards the verification of a standard solution, PBL takes a more open approach. Sometimes justification is also done through what Karl Popper (1972), the well-known philosopher of science, called a “falsification” process—dealing with what is not and arriving at a cluster of possible alternatives. This calls for not only analytical thinking but also analogy and imagination in presenting possible solutions in a variety of “what if” contexts. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Popper argued that it is imagination and creativity, not induction, that generate real scientific theories. My own research in cognition, built on the works of Robert Sternberg and Reuven Feuerstein, has convinced me that good problem solvers employ a wide range of cognitive functions and use multiple thinking tools and processes. Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein (1999) rightly observed in Sparks of Genius that:
we feel what we know and know what we feel. This kind of understanding depends upon an integrated use of thinking tools such that, first, we synthesize sensory impressions and feelings and, second, we fuse our sensory synthesis with the abstract knowledge that exists in our memories as patterns, models, analogies, and other higher-order mental constructs. Many gifted individuals thus work toward synthetic understanding by purposely cultivating a multiple-sensing of the world (pp. 297–8).
I hope that through the ideas, suggestions and approaches put forward in this book you will attempt to use problems and PBL processes to encourage cross-disciplinary learning as well as multiple ways of learning and thinking.
Just as Milo learnt in The Phantom Tollbooth that the only failure is not to try, we should be adventurous in our use of problems to power learning in the 21st century.