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Problem-Based Learning and Adult English Language Learners
(This brief is also available in pdf format.)
Background on Adult Learners
Adult education programs serve learners who are native English speakers and those whose first, or native, language is not English. Native English speakers attend adult basic education (ABE) classes to learn the skills needed to earn high school equivalency certificates or to achieve other goals related to job, family, or further education. English language learners attend English as a second language (ESL) or ABE classes to improve their oral and written skills in English and to achieve goals similar to those of native English speakers.
Audience for This Brief
This brief is written for adult ESL teachers and program administrators, as well as educational researchers, policymakers, and stakeholders who work with adult English language students in ESL classes or in mixed ABE classes (with native English speakers and English language students.
Problem-based learning purposefully combines cognitive and metacognitive teaching and learning. It is an approach that has been around since the late 1960s (Neufeld & Barrows, 1974) and engages language students in learning how to learn while they also learn language and content. Roschelle (1999) held that problem-based learning is rooted in John Dewey’s project-based pedagogy of the early 20th century (e.g., Dewey, 1929, 1933, 1938). Within the area of second language learning and teaching, problem-based learning aligns with approaches in which students learn the target language by using it, rather than being presented with and then practicing predetermined language structures. Approaches based on similar principles include task-based learning (Ellis, 2003; Skehan, 1998; Willis, 1996), content-based learning (Garner & Borg, 2005; Rodgers, 2006), and project-based learning (Alan & Stoller, 2005; Lee, 2002; Moss & Van Duzer, 1998). What makes problem-based learning unique is its core focus on learning through solving real, open-ended problems to which there are no fixed solutions (Ertmer, Lehman, Park, Cramer, & Grove, 2003). Students work alone or in groups first to understand a particular problem and then to find possible solutions to it.
This brief describes how problem-based learning aligns with research on second language acquisition, gives guidelines for teachers and administrators on implementing problem-based learning in classes or programs for adults learning English as a second language (ESL), and outlines the benefits and challenges of using a problem-based learning approach with adult English language learners.
The Problem-Based Learning Process
In problem-based learning classrooms, the roles and responsibilities of both teachers and learners are different from those in more traditional types of school-based learning. Generally, in problem-based classrooms, the teacher acts as a coach for or facilitator of activities that students carry out themselves. The teacher does not simply present information or directly control the progression of work. Instead, the teacher provides students with appropriate problems to work on, assists them in identifying and accessing the materials and equipment necessary to solve the problems, gives necessary feedback and support during the problem-solving process, and evaluates students’ participation and products, with the goal of helping them develop their problem-solving as well as their language and literacy skills. These activities are described below.
Four Steps in Implementing Problem-Based Learning
Considerations for Teachers
The teacher’s role in problem-based learning moves from preteaching through assessing students’ performance throughout the project, and includes the following steps:
Introduce the Problem and the Language Needed to Work on It
For teachers, selecting problems for students to work on may be the most difficult part of problem-based learning. Ideally, problems should
Teachers might survey students for their ideas on problems or conflicts that they face, or have faced, in their daily lives or that they are aware of in their community. Below is a problem that students at the high-beginning or above levels might work on. Although it is teacher created, it mirrors the problems many refugees and other adult learners face when they arrive in the United States and need to support their families while learning English.
Group Students and Provide Resources
Observe and Support
Follow Up and Assess Progress
Information for Administrators
Administrators can do a number of things to initiate problem-based learning in their program and ensure that it is successful. They can
Determine the Place of Problem-Based Learning in a Program
Involve Teachers in Problem-Based Learning
Provide Training and Resources for Teachers
Help Teachers Identify Resources
Evaluate Problem-Based Learning
A negative response to any of these questions may indicate that students have not been given adequate information about problem-based learning and its benefits, or that the teachers have not been adequately trained. As part of the evaluation, administrators can also consider surveying teachers and students about their experiences with and reactions to problem-based learning, and take these responses into consideration when deciding whether to revise how the approach is being used in the program.
Benefits and Challenges of Problem-Based Learning in Second Language Acquisition
Teachers may face a different kind of challenge when they allow students to negotiate meaning and solve the problem among themselves, without teacher intervention. Research at the Lab School in Portland, Oregon, on pair work in ESL classes suggests that when teachers approach students working in pairs, the nature of the students’ interaction changes (summarized in Smith, Harris, & Reder, 2005). Students may stop negotiating, ask the teacher to solve their problem, or start interacting with the teacher about unrelated topics. This change in interaction may keep students from trying out linguistic strategies to solve the problem on their own. Discussing as a class why problem-solving activities are useful for students to carry out without the teacher’s input may help to keep both students and teachers on track.
Problem-based learning has much to offer in adult ESL instruction. As a teaching approach it has both linguistic benefits, as shown in the research on the role of natural, meaning-focused classroom interaction in language learning, and affective benefits in the form of raising student motivation and promoting learner autonomy and transfer of learning beyond the classroom. To achieve these benefits, teachers and administrators must ensure that students understand the principles behind problem-based learning and recognize that they are participating in an effective learning process, even if it is unfamiliar to them. Teachers need support from program administrators, from initial training in how to conduct problem-based learning to help with making resources available to students. Finally, administrators must consider the role that problem-based learning will play in their program. Will it constitute the primary philosophical and pedagogical thrust of the program, or will it serve as an alternative activity for teachers to use in their classrooms? Careful consideration of these issues will increase the likelihood that problem-based learning will be successfully incorporated into an adult ESL program with positive outcomes.
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Problem Based Learning for English as a Second Language Learners
Contains useful details on how to set up groups and design problems.
Problem Based Learning (PBL)
Gives an overview of the benefits of problem-based learning.
Distinguishes between problem-based learning and problem-stimulated learning. Also includes an animated description of the roles taken by students and teachers in a problem-based learning process.
This document was produced at the Center for Applied Linguistics (4646 40th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20016 202-362-0700) with funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), under Contract No. ED-04-CO-0031/0001. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.