Problem-based Learning Communities: Using the Social Environment to Support Creativity

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Problem-based Learning Communities: Using the Social Environment to Support Creativity

Marion Porath and Elizabeth Jordan
University of British Columbia, Canada


This chapter explores the educational environmental conditions that support risk taking and creativity, discusses the challenges and benefits in building such supportive environments, and offers tools to support learning communities in which creativity flourishes. It considers the social aspects of meaning making that contribute to creativity, and how these aspects are fostered in problem-based learning communities. Full participation in one's education begins with the building of teacher–student and student–student relationships based on mutual respect and understanding. People construct knowledge based on their personal understandings and shared experiences, and meaning is made in the comparative interface of our own understandings and new insights. While the intellectual and social aspects of meaning making are intertwined, it is the social aspects—cooperation, discourse, and debate—that foster interpersonal relationships and evoke excitement in classrooms. Problem-based learning contributes to the collaborative construction of knowledge and the development of supportive relationships.


Problem-based learning (PBL) provides an opportunity for teachers to become partners with students in a unique learning environment. This partnership builds supportive, risk-free relationships, in addition to strong declarative, procedural, and conceptual knowledge bases. It provides an environment that fosters (1) collaborative knowledge building, a process that is so important to life in a learning society; (2) the development of relationships believed to be crucial to contemporary life in the global community (Bruner, 1996; Keating & Hertzman, 1999); and (3) learning contexts that support the building of "intellectual camaraderie" and communities of learners (Donovan et al., 1999). People construct knowledge based on their personal understandings and shared experiences, and meaning is made out of the similarities and differences between our own understandings and new insights (Fosnot, 1996).

While the intellectual and social aspects of meaning making are intertwined, it is the social aspects that foster interpersonal relationships, ignite excitement in classrooms, and nourish respect for novel ideas. This social and intellectual interaction forms the basis for what Csikszentmihalyi (1988) calls the "social support factors" that are vital to creativity, such as openness to novel ideas, positive attitude toward novelty, acceptance of diversity, and rewarding divergent thinking. This "congenial" environment, as Csikszentmihalyi (1996) describes it, allows students to think beyond socially acceptable conventions and provides a safe haven for breaking rules.

We explore in this chapter the concept of the educational environment as a community, emphasizing the conditions necessary for developing the vibrant intellectual atmosphere for increased risk taking and creativity. The social support of a safe environment is vital for building the courage to think beyond socially acceptable responses. We will consider the social aspects of meaning making, with an emphasis on those that influence creativity; a working definition of the community environment; the challenges to building community; the conditions for building relationships; and PBL case structures that foster group support.

We are currently experiencing a paradigm shift in education that challenges existing models of teaching and systems of education (Barr & Tagg, 1995; Dodge, 2006). It is a time when we must carefully consider the roles of educators in relation to the needs of students and the nature of optimal learning environments, with the aim of creating what Barab and Plucker (2002) term "smart contexts" in our schools and universities. It is also necessary to think creatively about how we support learning so as to bring artistry in teaching to bear on our repertoires of pedagogical strategies, blending rules with art. Joseph J. Schwab captures this blend of rule and art well:

Every art, whether it be teaching, stone carving or judicial control of a court of law … has rules, but knowledge of the rules does not make one an artist. Art arises as the knower of the rules learns to apply them appropriately to the particular case. Application, in turn, requires acute awareness of the particularities of that case and ways in which the rule can be modified to fit the case without complete abrogation of the rule. In art, the form must be adapted to the matter. (As cited in Shulman, 1986, p. 31)

PBL provides a framework for thinking about creative adaptations of form. It fosters not only intellectual engagement but also congenial learning environments. Much goes into teaching conducted in a way that truly supports learning and creativity (Torrance, 2004). Teachers' knowledge of the curriculum and instructional strategies and their ability to craft learning environments that are responsive to students are critical to all pedagogical approaches, but central to PBL are those aspects related to the social educational environment. Table 4.1 summarizes six important aspects of expertise in teaching as defined by researchers of practice and highlights features that are central to PBL. The integration of these aspects of teaching underpins the creation of responsive and congenial learning environments.

The Social Aspects of Meaning Making

We learn not only from the inside out but also from the outside in. Students bring their own understandings and questions to learning situations; these, together with their feelings, desires, and intentions related to learning, must be respected and connected in meaningful ways to the curriculum ("inside out" learning). In their interactions with peers, teachers, and others in their communities, students need to be offered opportunities to express their understandings and questions, gain new perspectives, have their thinking challenged, share and build on their knowledge, and learn about the knowledge traditions in their cultures

Cognitive psychology of instructionUnderstanding of subject matterUnderstanding of pedagogyUnderstanding of curricular knowledgeUnderstanding of and sensitivity to contextKnowledge of self
Shulman (1986)
*The central features of PBL are highlighted in italics.
Organization of instruction in terms of students' preconceptions
PBL scenarios must be constructed to optimize the connection of students' knowledge with the knowledge that the curriculum conveys.*
Content specialist who can situate and apply deep knowledge in ways that connect it to the real worldHow topics, principles, and strategies in different subjects are understood, learned, and misconstrued and how real-world problems may build on or challenge those understandings and misconceptionsHow knowledge is organized and "packaged" for instruction and how the "packaging" may be deconstructed and "repackaged" creativelyMultiple classroom "worlds"Teacher's thoughts and feelings in relation to actions
Berliner (2001)
Expert inference of student understanding with students who are known to the teacherDomain expert bringing "adaptive expertise" to bear on new problemsAutomaticity for repetitive operations, which allows "reinvestment" of cognitive resources in higher-level activities. This reinvestment facilitates the role of the teacher as designer and facilitator of creative learning experiences.Deep knowledge providing a structure within which to interpret the curriculumFlexible teaching that accommodates and responds to student needs; having a complex rather than simple view of what it means to teachRich and personal sources of information brought to the solution of problems
Turner-Bisset (1999)
Knowledge of child development; empirical or social knowledge of learnersSubstantive and syntactic knowledge of subjects; beliefs about subjects (orientation and conceptions of what is important to know)General pedagogical knowledge and beliefs about teaching (views of the process of education)Drawing on deep knowledge of a subject to teach curricular knowledge; critical analysis of curricular materialsKnowledge of educational settings; understanding of a particular group of learners' knowledge, actions, and understandingIdentity as a teacher and its relationship to personal identity
Sternberg and Horvath (1995)
Using higher-order executive processes to plan, monitor, and reflect on instruction; development of models of problems together with insightful solutionsSensitivity to the deep structure of a subject; well-integrated knowledgeWell-developed structure for planning instruction; connection of student feedback to learning objectivesCurricular innovation coupled with practical knowledge of how to "work the system" to implement innovationsPractical knowledge of the social and political contexts in which one teaches; tacit knowledge
Arlin (1999)
Wisdom—the understanding of and interest in others' minds and the learning contextRich factual knowledge of subjectRich factual knowledge of teaching, rich procedural knowledge of teaching strategies, and practical knowledge of when and how to use bothA constructive process that includes understanding students' perspectives on the curriculumSense of the context of instruction and the context in which students are being instructedTeacher as learner orientation; willing to take risk and comfortable with uncertainty

("outside in" learning). Crafting learning experiences that honor the significant role that the social environment plays in meaning making is central to PBL.

Arlin's work (1993, 1999) on the wise teacher is important in understanding the teacher qualities that optimize educational experiences where the social interactions in class are focused on meaning making. Arlin's wise teacher is one who has "an orientation toward self, students, and teaching that highlights the teacher as learner in the act of constructing knowledge with her students" (1999, p. 12). This construction of knowledge unites the curriculum and learners' perspectives (Bruner, 1996). PBL does not supplant the curriculum but, rather, provides a meaningful vehicle for student and teacher engagement with the curriculum. To truly be a teacher as learner implies creating a social environment in which students interact around problems that are meaningful to them and their community and where curiosity about others' points of view on the curriculum and their ways of solving problems is evident. The foundation for such intellectual camaraderie lies in the social aspects of meaning making: cooperation, discourse, and debate. Ways in which teaching, curricula, and social aspects of meaning making are organized to support creativity in PBL communities are outlined in Table 4.2 (pp. 58–59), with emphasis on the questions to consider in implementing PBL and on the reciprocal role of the educator as both teacher and learner.

Social environments conducive to meaning making can be characterized as having a vibrant intellectual atmosphere and exhibiting the following features:

  • Students are perceived as bringing important, relevant knowledge to school and are viewed as thinkers.
  • Teachers are curious about this knowledge, with the result that learners' points of view are taken into account in planning instruction.
  • Dynamic learning experiences are planned that engage students in meaningful challenges, and there is a climate of mutual respect and trust.
  • Teachers help learners build bridges between their own conceptions and those of the culture.
  • Students collaborate through helping each other solve problems and teachers play an active role in promoting this collaboration.

A Working Definition of the Community Environment

In order to grasp the importance of the environment for encouraging and nurturing creativity, we need to have a more refined notion of the concept of community. Broadly, it refers to a group of people working together with a common set of goals or interests. It can be expanded to the neighborhood, town, province, or state, but once it goes beyond a reasonable size the idea starts to break down. We tend not to think of regions or countries as communities. This implies the need to have some kind of personal relationship with others in order for a community to exist. This critical size limitation means that the smaller the group of people the greater is the realization of a common focus and therefore the existence of a community. It is those necessary interpersonal dynamics that hold a community together.

Shavinina and Ferrari (2004) note the importance of social–cultural factors for the development of creativity at the micro-social level of school, family, and significant peers and the macro-social conditions of culture, politics, and history. As part of the micro-social level for students and teachers, the community consists of the classroom and school that together form a learning community with common goals. As long as the goals are common to students, teachers, and administrators, this learning community provides the support network necessary for learning to occur. Peterson (1992) asserts that "when community exists, learning is strengthened … everyone is smarter, more ambitious, and productive" (p. 10).

Social Aspects of Meaning Making that Influence Creativity

Csikszentmihalyi (1988) notes that social support groups or networks are vital for creativity to flourish. The interpersonal relationships built within

Step in PBLTeacher's roleRelationship buildingQuestions to considerSample formative assessment strategies
*Adapted from Duckworth (1987), pp. 134–135.
1. Designing a problem that matches the curriculumActive, focused listener and designer who matches students' skills, talents, needs, interests, and cognitive ability with the curriculum
  • Respects students' points of view
  • Promotes open communication
  • What do students think about [a certain issue]?
  • What collaborative skills and backgrounds do students bring to problem solving?
  • What experience do students have with learning communities?
  • Observational data
  • Annotated notes
  • Checklists
  • Teacher's journal entries
  • Students' journal entries
2. Student engagement with the problem, defining issues and elements that need researchQuestioner and facilitator who challenges students to question their knowledge and models collaboration and inquiry
  • Assists learning groups to move toward definition of issues
  • Adopts respectful, interested approach to questioning
  • Helps students engage in and reflect on group processes
  • What are students' preconceptions?
  • How do students understand group work?
  • What strategies result in positive group interactions?
  • What strategies get in the way of other strategies?*
  • Audiotapes
  • Videotapes
  • Meeting notes
  • Students' learning logs
  • Teacher's logs
3. Students researching by accessing books, experts, and other information sources to gather relevant factsCoach and mentor who challenges students to expand their knowledge, to think at higher levels, and to solve problems intellectually and interpersonally
  • Continues to listen to and respect students' points of view
  • Continues to help students monitor and reflect on their thinking and problem solving, at both individual and group levels
  • What seem to be critical barriers to students' thinking?
  • How are ideas and group processes modified?*
  • How does a firmly held conviction influence how a person interprets an experience?*
  • In what circumstances is a person confused by/deaf to/helped by another person's thoughts on the problem and/or process?*
  • Audiotapes
  • Videotapes
  • Meeting notes
  • Students' learning logs
  • Teacher's logs
  • First drafts of products (e.g., portfolios, posters, charts, speeches)
4. Students proposing plausible solutions and negotiating meaningAssessor who evaluates students' shared meanings in their conversations and products
  • Analyzes and interprets group processes and relationships
  • How does a specific representation of one's thoughts influence how the thoughts develop further?*
  • How do representations of thoughts relate to ways of working in a group?
  • How does a new idea lead to a new question and vice versa?*
  • How are new ideas/questions communicated to and received by the group?
  • Analysis and interpretation of students' products
  • Analysis and interpretation of the interactions between group relationships and products

a learning community promote a sense of group loyalty among students, a willingness to help each other, a sense of inclusiveness that respects diversity as well as personal and social growth, high levels of participation, greater quality of discussion and questioning, use of diverse strategies for problem solving, and increased risk taking in forming points of view or opinion. An aspect of this type of environment is a community built on mutual respect among all members. These social–emotional qualities encourage risk taking and provide the social validation necessary for students to take cognitive risks. That validation produces feelings of satisfaction and sometimes elation as well as pride in oneself (Cropley, 2003; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Overall, a risk-free, or congenial, environment —one of openness, positive attitude toward novelty, acceptance of personal differences, and willingness to reward divergence—enhances the vibrant intellectual atmosphere that encourages the use of metacognitive skills. It provides an opportunity for skill development and helps maintain the intense and sustained motivation or perseverance found in creative individuals (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988; Howe, 2004). This type of environment produces students who are self-confident in their social roles within a group, are willing to take risk in the very public social arena of the classroom, and willingly collaborate with others to interpret and develop meaning from challenging problems.

The role of the teacher, beyond creating a risk-free intellectual social environment, is to provide students with age-appropriate problems that challenge their thinking. The provision of opportunities for manipulation and negotiation of ideas is essential in moving knowledge beyond facts to understanding. Within this vibrant environment, individual and group creativity begins to emerge and is highly valued by students. In our experience, the self-esteem that appears to result from such successful thinking encourages and reinforces the value of creativity in problem solving. Students begin to see creative thinking as part of their metacognitive repertoire for solving problems (in the broadest sense). A social environment that encourages novelty provides the "courage to create," and this courage includes a readiness for divergent thinking and, by defying conventional opinion, exposes one to the possibility of being wrong (Motamedi, 1982).

Cropley (2003) points out that when teachers employ methods that emphasize "branching out, finding out, or inventing," beneficial effects for students accrue, especially their motivation, attitude toward school, and self-image. All of these activities require student–student and student–teacher interactions. This socialized learning underscores the importance of the social–emotional aspects of the learning enterprise. For students, it means a cultural and social support system that nurtures creativity.

Challenges to Building Relationships

In building a congenial environment, some of the biggest challenges to the development of a vibrant learning community that educators may face include the following:

  • Time constraints. Most teachers have to make priority decisions based on the amount of time available for each topic. Problem solving requires opportunities to explore ideas and negotiate with others.
  • Other commitments. While project and problem-solving work may become a focus for the class, there are other obligations within the curriculum that may vie for everyone's time, students' and teachers' alike.
  • External pressures. Often, outside influences affect the teacher's decisions, such as administrative support that is lacking or district-wide testing that necessitates reverting to a more traditional pedagogical mode.
  • Complexity of relationships. The idea of a community as described implies everyone getting along with each other. In the reality of a classroom, that is not always the case. Teachers need to work with students to nurture mutual respect.

Given the above potential constraints on building relationships, the following conditions are necessary for fostering relationships that support PBL:

  • Small class size and small working groups. While it is not impossible to nurture community, social cohesion, and effective group problem solving in large classes, smaller groups optimize the chances of building successful learning communities.
  • Acknowledgment of team membership. Students need to know that they are valued for their contributions to finding and solving problems, for their knowledge, and for their ability to work collaboratively and respectfully with others. Their questions, knowledge, and goals become part of the group's shared efforts.
  • Suitable physical environment. A physical environment that is accessible by all class members and is aesthetically pleasing, well organized, and stocked with appropriate support materials and equipment is essential to supporting learning and creativity.
  • Diverse composition of groupings. Changing group membership periodically encourages the development of a repertoire of social skills, optimizing harmonious relationships among all class members. Diversity in group membership encourages collaboration within and among groupings. Students come to appreciate that they require the participation of all members of their learning community and that all points of view are important to increasing understanding and creativity.
  • Social and emotional support. Conditions that foster a social environment conducive to creativity make it possible to deal with the challenges articulated above. In a community that supports risk taking, aims for deep understanding, values diversity, and promotes collaborative problem solving, these challenges can be understood and addressed proactively.

PBL Case Structures that Foster Group Support

The features inherent in the structure of a problem in a PBL case, or scenario, support the types of student experiences and the social– emotional environment necessary for creativity to emerge. These features are often missing in case studies, an instructional strategy often seen as similar to PBL despite some significant differences. PBL scenarios are characterized by the following features:

  • Ill-structured problems. The nature of real-world problems is that they are often without the types of boundaries or structures that define problem solutions. Most problems, in reality, are confounded with other variables and need to be teased out of the social, emotional, cultural, and environmental contexts.
  • Partial information. When we encounter problems in real life, we often have only partial information available to us at first when we try to find a solution. At times, additional information is found or presented to us during the solution process.
  • Questions that belong to students. PBL scenarios are designed to give students the opportunity to become self-directed in their search for solutions, thereby making them, rather than the teacher, the persons who develop the questions.
  • A real problem with a number of plausible solutions. The illstructured nature of real problems means that often there is more than one solution. There may be a right answer, but it is also possible that the right answer is mixed in with a number of plausible answers and so further investigation would be required.
  • Requirement of cooperative group work. The reality of most problem-solving situations in life is that they are group efforts. We tend to seek out individuals who have information that could be useful to problem solution and usually discuss our findings to solidify our understanding of problems and situations. This natural collaborative problem-solving tendency is captured in the PBL procedure.

In contrast, case studies have the following characteristics:

  • Structured, self-evident problems. Cases are written with the problem to be solved made obvious to students. Questions are provided by the author to guide students rather than students being given the opportunity to develop questions.
  • Enough information to "solve" the problem. Cases come with all the facts necessary for students to solve the problem. Usually, there is no need to explore beyond the material provided to solve the problem.
  • Leading questions provided. To ensure that students will be able to find and solve the right problem and learn the lesson objectives, the author provides sets of leading questions at the end of the case.
  • Solutions known to instructors. Most cases come with answer books. Students are to seek the right answer rather than a plausible one. In many instances, students' results are compared against those achieved in a real situation. Evaluation is often a question of how close the student came to the actual or right answer.
  • Designed for individual or group work. Discussion and the negotiation of meaning are not necessarily part of case studies.

The differences between the value of case studies and that of PBL scenarios point out the need for case scenarios that not only support curricular goals but also are designed with a deep understanding of the developmental needs of students. When properly designed, PBL scenarios provide students with the scope necessary for creativity to emerge.


Shulman's (1990) perspective on turning the foundational educational disciplines of psychology, philosophy, history, and sociology upside down is relevant to PBL. This "upsetting" of foundations puts the content of the curriculum first and asks that the foundational discipline adapt to the content. While Shulman's suggestion was made in the context of students of education, it is relevant to how we craft PBL scenarios to shape students' experiences. Students in any discipline can benefit from investigating what it takes to understand a problem, be it scientific, artistic, historical, or geographical, by applying the relevant foundational discipline to the problem at hand. By probing what they know and need to know, coming to a consensus about problem definition, and researching possible solutions, students become aware of what it takes to understand the problem, bringing them to an awareness of the "conceptual landscape" (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005). If students do not engage in this sort of meaningful inquiry in PBL, they may form "one-time-only" theories (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2000). There is a critical difference between a "one-time-only" theory that applies only to the problem under discussion and a general theory that has the potential for broader explanation.

Educators also need to engage in meaningful inquiry and form general theories. They must be aware of the conceptual landscape of their classes, crafting the form of instruction in consideration of students' knowledge and group dynamics. They must also have a general theory of how the learning environment and pedagogy can support deep understanding of the curriculum and nurture creativity in their students. These aspects of teaching represent both the art and the craft of education.


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Problem-based Learning Communities: Using the Social Environment to Support Creativity

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