Education Policy

Introducing Problem Based Learning-2

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With the discussions continued here on PBL it will be cleared to the reader how these two distinct yet related approaches to learning is integrated in PBL. However, much of the activities in a PBL approach pivot around the philosophies of Socrates. It is, therefore, required for a reader of this article, who is being orientated to PBL for the first time, also get introduced to the detailed philosophy of problem based learning to conceptualize the simplified translations of taxonomy of Socratic questions. I should add here that often after the most learned professionals have been introduced to the process of PBL without the exposure to the philosophy runs into the risk of conceptualizing PBL as a common sense and has been always in practice (“so what is new anyway?”). What is important here to acknowledge is that PBL has a very strong foundation in philosophy and theories. Without taking these into account, the objective of PBL is either achieved in a non-standardized and through a derailed path or does not achieve its success at all. However, whether the process of PBL has achieved its objective and has any potential advantage over other teaching-learning methods can only be assessed through proper assessment structure.

Coming back to the philosophical discussion surrounding PBL, the taxonomy of Socratic questions, created by Richard Paul, is not a hierarchy in the traditional sense. The categories build upon each other, but they do not necessarily follow a pattern or design. One question’s response will lead into another category of questioning not predetermined by the teacher/facilitator. In keeping with the PBL philosophy, this aspect of the model is most conducive! The role of the skilled teacher/facilitator is to keep the inquiry “train on track,” but, also, to allow the students to “travel to a viable destination” of their own design. The role of a tutor will be further discussed later in this article. Meanwhile a reader might imagine him or herself as either a facilitator/tutor or a student while going through these questions phrased in a truly generic manner. It is advised that readers emphasize on the relationship between the questions and how one question is naturally leading to the other, very minutely & in a very well thought-out way – looming for explanation of a problem & its solution. Once the reader is able to capture (and as a result internalize) the essence of these questioning as a student, he/she is prepared to achieve the basic quality required for conceptualizing the natural process of problem-based learning. The reader will also notice that the questions are very well sequential. However, I have slightly modified the table on the taxonomy of Socratic questioning so that it proves extensively congruent with other concepts of PBL discussed further:

The following table has been adapted from: Paul, Richard, Critical Thinking: How to Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing World, 1993.4

Questions that Probe Reasons and Evidence

Questions of Clarification (Sequences in thoughts) Questions that Probe Assumptions (Sequences in eliciting reasoning) Questions that Probe Reasons and Evidence
(Sequences in supporting the reasoning)  
What do you mean by ____?
What is your main point?
How does _____ relate to _____?
Could you put that another way?
Is your basic point _____ or _____?
What do you think is the main issue here?
Let me see if I understand you; do you mean _____ or _____?
How does this relate to our problem/discussion/issue?
What do you, Mike (name of a student), mean by this remark? What do you take Mike to mean by his remark?
Jane, can you summarize in your own words what Richard (name of a student) said? . . . Richard, is this what you meant?
Could you give me an example?
Would this be an example, . . .?
Could you explain this further?
Would you say more about that?
Why do you say that?
What are you assuming?
What is Jenny (a student’s name) assuming?
What could we assume instead?
You seem to be assuming _____. Do I understand you correctly?
All of your reasoning depends on the idea that _____. Why have you based your reasoning on _____ instead of _____?
You seem to be assuming _____. How do you justify taking that for granted?
Is that always the case? Why do you think the assumption holds here?
Why would someone make that assumption?
What would be an example?
How do you know?
Why do you think that is true?
Do you have any evidence for that?
What difference does that make?
What are your reasons for saying that?
What other information do you need?
Could you explain your reasons to us?
Are these reasons adequate?
Why do you say that?
What led you to that belief?
How does that apply to this case?
What would change your mind?
But, is that good evidence for that belief?
Is there a reason to doubt that evidence?
Who is in a position to know that is true?
What would you say to someone who said that ____?
Can someone else give evidence to support that view?
By what reasoning did you come to that conclusion?
How could we find out if that is true?
Questions about Viewpoints or PerspectivesQuestions that Probe Implications and ConsequencesQuestions about the Question
The term “imply” will require clarification when used with younger students.
What are you implying by that?
When you say _____, are you implying _____?
But, if that happened, what else would happen as a result? Why?
What effect would that have?
Would that necessarily happen or only possibly/probably happen?
What is an alternative?
If _____ and _____ are the case, then what might also be true?
If we say that ____ is ethical, how about _____?
How can we find out?
What does this question assume?
Would _____ ask this question differently?
How could someone settle this question?
Can we break this question down at all?
Is this question clear? Do we understand it?
Is this question easy or hard to answer? Why?
Does this question ask us to evaluate something? What?
Do we all agree that this is the question?
To answer this question, what other questions must we answer first?
I’m not sure I understand how you are interpreting this question. Is this the same as _____?
How would _____ state the issue?
Why is this issue important?
Is this the most important question, or is there an underlying question that is really the issue?

It is noteworthy that Hegelian approaches in thesis-antithesis-synthesis are achieved from these sequential questioning of Socrates and also is encircled by the philosophy of Cognitive constructivism of Piaget and Social Constructivism of Vygotsky (see previous post of this article).

As said previously questions might be asked while imagining one’s self as a student. Equally important is when a teacher directs a student (as well as creates non-threatenting and motivated ambience) with the above questions while facilitating a PBL session. As we will see later that the role of a teacher would be to simply facilitate, like other facilitators in focus group discussions, or group works in workshops. So, taxonomy of Socratic questioning would serve as the founding principle upon which the rest of the processes of a practical Problem Based approach will proceed. It is, therefore, important to know in details what are the roles of questioning in Problem Based Learning. It is note worthy that one should not strictly consider the taxonomy as the only means of guidance. Newer questions with exquisite modus operandi could be generated in the mind of talented readers and as long as they are targeted, to meet the demand of PBL should equally serve the purpose and given the credits. Since PBL is still a growing field contextualizing the fundamental philosophy to suit situations is something that should be practiced for its constructive development.

The Role of Questioning in Problem-Based Learning

The use of open-ended, probing questioning when initiating and perpetuating inquiry into the ill-structured problem is a key component to the success of the PBL experience. This is in contrast to seeking information from students in a conventional classroom battering with questions that demands merely an exercise of their memorizing capacities.  Thus a strategy known as Socratic questioning was designed to elicit a wealth of ideas and facts from any group. When using Socratic questioning with younger audiences, considerable patience, coupled with a warm and inviting classroom atmosphere is crucial. Socratic questioning promotes synthesis of information into discernible categories of “fact” and “opinion.” This strategy will attempt to:

•    raise basic issues.
•    probe beneath the surface.
•    pursue problematic areas of thought. 
•    help participants develop a sensitivity to clarity, accuracy, and relevance.
•    help participants arrive at judgments based on their own reasoning.

•    help participants note claims, evidence, conclusions, questions at issue, assumptions, implications, consequences, concepts, interpretations, points of view, . . . all considered to be the elements of thought.

While it is difficult to establish a concrete format for questioning within a variety of circumstances, Socratic questioning includes taxonomy of questions that may be utilized diagnostically as the teacher/facilitator moderates discussion and verbal inquiry. The categories are as follows:

•    Clarification
•    Probe assumptions
•    Probe reasons and evidence
•    Reveal differing viewpoints and perspectives
•    Probe implications and/or consequences
•    Used for responding to questions

One example of modifying these concepts and putting them in practice is a framework developed by the state of New Mexico’s Medical College- popularly known as clinical reasoning5 outlined below:

4. The Taxonomy of Socratic Questioning: viewed on 21 August 2004 <>
5. Sussan M, Luccero, Rebecca J et al. Tutorial groups in Problem-Based Learning. In: Kaufman A (ed). Implementing Problem-Based Medical Education. 1st ed., New York, Springer Publication Co, Inc., 1985.

Author: Visiting instructor, Department of Global Health, School of Public Health and Health Sciences, The George Washington University, Washington DC, USA & Lecturer, James P Grant School of Public Health, Brac University, BRAC, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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