What is education for? To solve problems. PBL explained

Solution-based learning


What is education for?

We do not ask ourselves this question often enough, we take education as a given, children must be educated but we never truly think why. We will say; to get jobs, to make tomorrow a better world, to keep them out of trouble, but never truly ask why. If we answer that question, then the next question is; how we do we educate our children? We agree that we have a largely colonial education system, we deal with the remnants of colonial dogma in our text books, curricula, and methods, but we never deal with the root cause. The colonial system was not built to make you understand but to remember. What we have today is not so much an education system but a Memory Championships. We measure to see which kids can memorize the best, we select these kids and set them on a path to success, understanding is not necessary, just memorizing is enough. We do not focus as much on analytical skills, critical thinking, teamwork, motivation, and other skills needed for the market. School teaches you two things; facts and skills, facts are facts “2 + 2 = 4” but skills are more beneficial in life. Learning negotiation, compromise, teamwork, communication skills, report-writing, problem-solving, and such are the real benefits I got from school, I have since forgotten most of the facts the teachers yapped all day. Employers in Rwanda complain daily about the caliber of graduates, the qualifications are fine, but core skills are lacking. Every Job Ad says the same “Must have good communication skills, analytical skills, leadership skills, teamwork, and be highly self-motivated.” That is a model employee, technical skills are not enough, core skills differential a good from a great employee.

What is solution-based learning?

You will notice I have used “Solution-based learning” instead of the proper title “Problem-based learning” but I did it on purpose, so as not to scare away policy-makers who boycott anything with “Problems” in it. The intention is the same, it starts with a problem, and ends with a solution. We complain that our courses are not geared towards seeking solutions to our problems specifically. It is about what skills we develop while teaching. We have tried to defund certain courses we see as unnecessary but the problem is the core skills. In traditional learning a solution is decided for a problem, the person memorizes, then a problem is assigned to illustrate the solution. In Problem-based learning you come with a fresh approach, a problem is assigned, not a solution, you never assume to have the answer. Second, you decide what information is necessary to help understand the problem, only then do you assign a solution.

PBL has certain advantages.


  • It creates Student-centered learning, it shifts the focus away from the teacher to the student. The teacher is merely a facilitator who will help the students teach each other.
  • It create lifelong students, the skills you learn can be used for life.
  • Comprehension not memorization, if you understand something you don’t have to remember, it is at your fingertips.
  • Students deal with real life relevant situations to their contexts, students also build on prior knowledge they have.
  • Helps with self-learning, a student researches alone then goes to share with their counterparts and spreads it in the group.
  • Interpersonal skills and teamwork. We create a competitive environment in school, but the job world is a collaborative effort. Children who have been programmed to compete, to win at all costs, make bad employees in the long run. Teamwork and collaboration is needed now.
  • It improves the Teacher-student experience. Teaching become a two-way experience, the average Rwandan teenager knows more about technology than their teachers, the teachers can learn as well in this. To understand this crazy new world better.


The concept of modern education is very new, only 100 or so years old since it became compulsory in the West, we try to copy all their mistakes to remain relevant. However, in the thousands of years before that we still had education, children were banded in groups of 6-10 and taught in small groups, not classes. PBL tries to recreate that pre-historic method, our forefathers walked through the woods as they taught biology, naming each plant, letting you smell the scent, feel the leaves, see the insects underneath. In this method, a child can never forget because all their senses were stimulated. The PBL system can help augment traditional teaching methods, it is not there to replace traditional teaching but make it more accessible. Teachers have to change the way they teach, to include the pupil and student more. Students have to change their attitude to be more self-motivated and not look to their teacher to do everything. We must find a way to use all the technology and information at our disposal. One of the secret reasons why One Laptop Per Child works is the interactive group learning aspect, less the technology which merely facilitates learning. PBL needs the education policymakers to be on board, the teachers, as well as students have to be re-sensitized


  1. Prepare faculty for change
  2. Establish a new curriculum committee and working group
  3. Designing the new PBL curriculum and defining educational outcomes
  4. Seeking Advice from Experts in PBL
  5. Planning, Organizing and Managing
  6. Training PBL facilitators and defining the objectives of a facilitator
  7. Introducing Students to the PBL Program
  8. Using 3-learning to support the delivery of the PBL program
  9. Changing the assessment to suit the PBL curriculum
  10. Encouraging feedback from students and teaching staff
  11. Managing learning resources and facilities that support self-directed learning
  12. Continuing evaluation and making changes




Core skills, and not bad subjects?

There is no such thing as a bad subject, or wrong subject, only a wrongly taught subject. A friend of mine in UK studied Medieval Arts, he’s now a bank manager. Even though he studied a superfluous subject, he learnt core skills; good communication, analysis, report-writing, teamwork, leadership, self-motivation, and was ready to learn. Cutting funding to Arts, or Business courses and focusing on STEM will not produce any better students. The employers will say the same “they can’t think for themselves, communication is poor, no critical thinking, reports are terrible, lack of teamwork, not self-motivated, waiting to be told to do the smallest thing, and they are not curious about knowledge. If our STEM courses do not teach these critical skills, then we in the same situation and nothing will change. Facts vs skills; we want our students to remember more facts than ever before, facts that became obsolete and irrelevant years ago. We never truly focus on skills, skills which last a lifetime, skills for life and not just the job. In today’s world facts are less important to memorize, we have Google, but we don’t have the skills to analyze the facts. We should allow students to bring laptops and Google stuff, but test them on analysis and cognitive skills. Our system will just continue to produce memory champions, they won’t understand the knowledge but will remember it verbatim like a parrot. Look at the Expats we have here, what do they have that we don’t? It might be as simple as they took PBL in school and we didn’t.


What are the obstacles to PBL?


The system is not perfect, it also has so flaws, but its benefits outweigh the downside

  • The role of the teacher is crucial, some teachers are not naturally suited to PBL. It must be up to the teacher to have more freedom to choose their methods.
  • Time-consuming, it is far easier to just lecture, but less effective.
  • Changing assumptions is hard, teachers should teach and students should study, challenging social norms can lead to friction. Especially when teachers are locked in a target culture or ticking boxes
  • Cognitive load – a group discussion can lead to TMI (To Much Info) overloading the student. Teachers should set strict parameters for discussion to avoid deviation, repetition and misinformation.
  • Student feedback – it is very important that the teacher gives the student marks, but also important for the student to mark the teacher a grade as well. To help perfect PBL you need end user feedback, in this case the learner. This upsets the balance of traditional teaching.


Producing 21st century thinkers


Rwanda is trying to produce the best thinkers of the 21st century, we are doing all the prescribed things but we fall short somehow. Something is missing, critical thinking – critical thinking does not equate to being a critic or criticizing, it pertains to being about to think systematically about a problem, devise a solution, implement it, appraise it and mitigate it from happening. In Rwanda, I leave work at 9 for field trips and come back at 4 and nothing happened, no one had the initiative to think for themselves, or take responsibility, so they waited for boss to come back. This happens in every office, when the Boss is away, nothing moves, no one can take responsibility. We are producing brilliant coders who can’t think for themselves, geniuses who can’t communicate well in even one language, leaders who can’t lead, something is missing in the current upcoming generation.


I will give you an example of how PBL can be transformational. A Girl’s School in Zambia was next to a bar, drinkers from the local pub would urinate outside and it would stink for the girls in class. The teacher gave them an assignment, to find a solution to this problem. The Girls designed a urinal that collected this urine and they later discovered this urine could be used to make electricity. They then made a giant urine battery to light up their school, the urine of drinkers went from being a nuisance to a blessing. That is PBL at its core, practical solution made by learning on the job, turning problems into solutions. Look around us, so many problems, but also many solutions as well, we need to put our young minds to work on fixing them. We can turn a sewerage problem into fertilizers, a rubbish problem into jobs and cash, all our problems are also solutions to another problem, we just need to pair them up. We need to teach this can-do attitude to our student, to collectively solve their problems and not wait for others.


Solution-based learning or Problem-based learning, call it what you want. It works

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