Yesterday evening I read the article by Savin-Baden (2014), one of the two recommended readings for First week: Getting started and connecting. Actually, I started off reading Kek & Huijser (2015), but within the first couple of pages it became clear that it would make more sense to read Savin-Baden first as they refer quite extensively to her article at the start.

Savin-Baden provides a typology of PBL because there appear to many different varieties, or what she terms “constellations”. She argues that PBL should be underpinned by “pedagogically informed guidelines” rather than “performative rules about how PBL should be used” (p.2). She starts by making that claim that “PBL is an approach to learning that is affected by the structural and pedagogical environment into which it is placed” (p. 2), which I find puzzling since surely this applies to any approach to learning–I cannot think of any approach to learning that is not going to be affected by the structural and pedagogical environment into which it is placed.

I found her discussion of 5 different modes of knowledge, and how PBL might relate to them, interesting. However, the allusion to the “liquid” reminded me of Zygmunt Bauman‘s discussion of “liquid modernity”, so I was surprised not to see reference to his work on modernity and globalisation at this point, specifically in terms of technology, globalisation, and how modes of knowledge change in modernity   (though later she briefly alludes to it: p.13). I found her discussion of the 5 modes of knowledge ahistorical.

The different constellations, however, are interesting. I found myself wondering to which constellation our ONL PBL groups belong: what is the philosophy that informs PBL groups in this course?

  • Presumably it is not Constellation 1,as we are not merely interested in knowledge management and propositional knowledge.
  • Might it be Constellation 2: a means of engaging us as students? Then again, that seems unlikely as our learning is not to my knowledge focused on “a particular problem, project, research question, or works-based activity” (p.9).
  • For this same reason, Constellation 3 seems unlikely too, as it is not necessarily “workplace based” (though in terms of my own interest in the course, I certainly am looking at the course in a kind of ‘meta’ way to see how we can at the NUS Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning translate our learning about e-learning to supporting NUS colleagues, and hence translate the experience to our own workplace).
  • Are we oriented toward practice and practicality (not quite the same two things, I would have thought), with its attendant dangers as to skills-based learning that becomes a “form of behavioural training in which competence can be ticked off against a checklist” or uncritical acceptance of instructors’ guidance (Constellation 4)?
  • Are we focusing on transfer to professional practice (Constellation 5, PBL for Design-Based Learning)? How exactly would that differ from Constellation 3?
  • Constellation 6 emphasises critical understanding, which is once again practice-oriented, so the question as to how this differs from the previous practice-oriented approaches again arises.
  • Instinctively,  Constellation 7: PBL for Multimodal Reasoning should be relevant for our course, given that we are a diverse group engage in multimodal discourses online by means of various different kinds of tools.
  • Constellation 8 is explicitly collaborative, with students working in PBL teams: i.e., the model being following for ONL171. It’s all about teamwork, as well as self- and peer assessment, with “high emphasis on reflexivity and accountability to one another in terms of the development of one’s own learning” (p.12). I look forward to seeing how this aspect develops in the course, specifically with reference to an open, connectives (p.17), integrative agenda across knowledge modes.
  • Finally, I suspect the course–both given its commitment to openness, the implicit critique of ‘performativity’ in Savin-Badin (p.13), and also the activist bent of a reading such as that by Kek & Huijser (and there explicit references to Biesta and Barnett)–has a transformative ideological agenda and is interested in issues relating to access, social justice, and indeed querying of dominant discourses.

Though the course presumably is oriented towards Constellation 8, ultimately I guess I am skeptical as to whether these different constellations of PBL are really so separate. The issue of student engagement is clearly central, but then I am a little surprised that this article does not take account of some of the key recent criticisms of PBL in particular and inquiry learning more generally with regard to issues that relate to cognitive load. I wonder whether PBL itself will be open to critique in the course, given that this is the approach being taken.


Kek, M. & Huijser, H. (2015). 21st century skills: problem based learning and the University of the Future. Paper Third 21st Century Academic Forum Conference, Harvard, Boston, USA.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R.E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

Savin-Baden, M., (2014) Problem-based learning: New constellations for the 21stCentury. Journal of Excellence in College Teaching 25 (3/4) 197-219 Preprint Savin-Baden JECT (3)


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