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The Pedagogical foundations of PBL

Monday 27 August 2018, by JMC

Is PBL a new method of learning?
The principles of PBL are by no means new. In most societies, before and even after the advent of formal schooling systems, people typically learnt through apprenticeship, a method of learning-by-doing where learners are given tasks to do and then guided by an experienced teacher, who gives specific instruction where appropriate to the task in hand.

Ancient roots


Even within more formal schooling systems, the principles of PBL such as learner-centred education, learning-by-doing and gaining knowledge through questioning, can be seen in nearly every civilization. For example, the Hindu Upanishads scriptures (c.500 BC) encouraged an exploratory learning process where teachers and learners were co-travellers in a search for truth. The teaching methods used reasoning and questioning. Nothing was labeled as the final answer.


Similarly, the Chinese Analects (Lunyu) and Xueji texts, which outline the principles and practices for early Confucian education, suggest a holistic, broad-based, and integrated curriculum which is learner-focused. The “enlightening approach” is recommended, where the teacher encourages and guides learners using the questioning technique and peer learning, and where critical and creative thinking are valued and indispensable.

All these principles stand in contrast to modern industrial educational practice, which minimises the freedom of learners and generally assumes a ‘top-down’ approach where teachers impart information unquestioningly to learners.

Classical pedigree


Another of PBL’s philosophical and pedagogical bases lies in the classical Socratic Method. In the industrial system of education, learning is typically treated as a one-way process consisting of the uncontested transmission of knowledge (information and skills) from the teacher to the learner. In the Greek tradition, however, learning is a dialogic process between teacher and learners and knowledge is constructed. Socrates, for example advocated a method of hypothesis elimination, whereby better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions.

Constructivism & Learning By Doing

Perhaps most fundamentally, PBL is based on the concept of constructivism, the epistemological theory that one learns by actively constructing knowledge out of experiences, rather than passively absorbing knowledge. This idea is supported by many of the most influential educational philosophers of the last century, including John Dewey, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

PBL supports the idea that knowledge is constructed, not merely received, therefore learning occurs when learners are actively involved in a process of meaning and knowledge construction. This means that teaching should not simply be a matter of transmitting knowledge, but requires learners to construct knowledge with their own activities, building on what they already understand.

John Dewey

This is in essence the idea behind John Dewey’s “Learning by Doing” philosophy.

It is important to note that Learning By Doing does not mean that everything is “hands-on”, nor that the teacher leaves all learning to the learner to discover (this is ‘discovery learning’). What John Dewey meant by Learning By Doing was that the learner’s mind needed to be active through the process and that can be achieved by it ‘experiencing’ learning. This can equally be auditory as kinaesthetic, as long as the learner is not passive.


PBL’s pedagogical roots extend back several millennia and draw from many of the world’s greatest civilisations. All understood that learning should relate to real life, should be constructed by teacher and learner together, and works best when learning is experienced.