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Learning by attempting to solve real-world problems can be a highly effective means of developing expertise.

Learn PBL from Medical Education

‘Problem-based learning’ (PBL) is an enquiry-based approach to problem-solving that grew out of medical education. It is intuitively appealing as a way of developing knowledge in the context of vocational education(1). A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of PBL (2) showed that although PBL students out-scored their peers in clinical performance, this was at the cost of lower basic science exam scores, and more study hours per day. More evidence of the effectiveness of PBL is needed, however (3), not least because minimal research has been conducted outside the areas of medical and gifted education (4).

Real-World Problem-Solving

There have been attempts to develop pedagogy that tries to reconcile the tensions between teaching through expert demonstration and transmission, and between learning through more constructivist approaches that allow the learner to experience learning through the sorts of method we have covered in this section. An example is Nicholas Farrar (5) attempt to understand dry stone walling. In the dry stone walling example, learners must learn to solve numerous problems with each stone laid. Farrar’s exploration of the process of becoming a dry stone walling ‘expert’ reveals how real-world problem-solving develops the learner in this context.

Putting Rules Into Practice

  • First, putting rules into practice by applying them in real-life scenarios allows the learner to gain valuable experience to the point where, over time, he is able to treat rules as ‘guidelines’, working around them if a ‘better’ result will ensure from an alternative action. In the case of the dry stone wallers, the ‘rule’ was that walls had to be built to a straight string line. The ‘better’ result was greater speed (faster walling) and efficiency (less wastage of flat stones) brought about by knowing when to ignore the rule.

The Right Stone

  • Second, dry stone wallers followed certain ‘maxims’. These weren’t rules, but summarised a great many aspects about walling, and were often hard to grasp in practice. For example, they all knew that picking up ‘the right stone’ was key to successful walling. And yet it was only through the experience brought about by real-life problem-solving that the instinctive selection of the right stone developed.

Reflect on Progress

  • Third, practical problem-solving gave wallers the opportunity to stand back – literally – and reflect on their progress.

State of ‘Flow’

  • Fourth, real-world problem-solving gave wallers the opportunity to experience a state of ‘flow’, the state of being totally engaged in an activity, and within a deeper application of thought.

Emotional Involvement

  • Fifth, real-world practical experience gives learners the opportunity for emotional involvement. Farrar found that wallers linked emotion with the learning of their craft. A better appreciation of the beauty of the product, or the ingenuity that went into creating it, for example, gives the learner a desire to do the job well.
Real-world practical experience gives learners the opportunity for emotional involvement

Expansive Apprenticeship

In the thinking about workplace learning, Lorna Unwin (6) has helpfully introduced the notion of the ‘expansive apprenticeship’. This idea is the development of Yrgö Engeström’s (7) ideas regarding the tension between expansive (pro-learning) and restrictive learning environments. A restrictive apprenticeship is found where organisations want to produce profitable workers as quickly and cheaply as possible. Naturally, this does not facilitate the learner to inquire and reflect. To develop real-world problem-solving abilities in learners, they need to be given more ‘expansive’ experiences in order to be able to contribute to business success and to develop worthwhile careers. Unwin proposes that education providers (and, accordingly, this must be considered when developing vocational pedagogy) take into account the ‘dual identity of worker and learner, and commit themselves to a model of apprenticeship that has the pedagogic, social and economic value’.

Constructivist Approaches to Learning

Real-world problem-solving is at the heart of what is referred to as constructivist approaches to learning. John Savery (8) usefully summarises these to include the creation of authentic tasks which are anchored to the real world, high levels of ownership by learners of the tasks they undertake, learning environments which support and challenge learners’ thinking, and opportunities for learners to take responsibility as they develop alternative ideas and strategies.

Real-World Problem-Solving is Core to any Vocational Pedagogy

Real-world problem-solving is core to any vocational pedagogy. But, depending on the nature of the vocational education and on the contexts in which it takes place, it may take many forms. It also requires structured processes for expert feedback and learner reflection.


  • Savery, J. & Duffy, T. (1995). Problem Based Learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. Educational Technology, 35(31-38).
  • Albanese, M. & Mitchell, S. (1993). Problem-Based Learning: A review of the literature on its outcomes and implementation issues. Academic Medicine, 68, 52-81.
  • Allen, D., Donham, R. & Bernhardt, S. (2011). Problem-Based Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Winter 2011(128), 21-29.
  • Hmelo-Silver, C. (2004). Problem-Based Learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266.
  • Farrar, N. & Trorey, G. (2008). Maxims, Tacit Knowledge and Learning: Developing expertise in dry stone walling. Journal of Vocational Education, 60(1), 35-68.
  • Unwin, L. (2004). Growing Beans With Thoreau: Rescuing skills and vocational education from the UK’s deficit approach. Oxford Review of Education, 30(1), 147.
  • Engeström, Y. (2009). Expansive Learning: Toward an activity-theoretical reconceptualization. In Illeris, K. (ed.) Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists … in their own words. London: Routledge.
  • Savery, J. & Duffy, T. (1996). Problem-Based Learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. 135-150. In Wilson, B. (ed.) Constructivist Learning Environments: Case studies in instructional design. Educational Technology. Retrieved on Aug. 3, 2012, from http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=mpsHa5f712wC.

Lucubrate Magazine August 2019

The picture on the top: Student and Worker in an industrial factory, solving the problems, By Kzenon

The article is from the report “How to teach vocational education: A theory of vocational pedagogy” by Bill Lucas, Ellen Spencer and Guy Claxton, The City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development (December 2012)

Learning environments which support and challenge learners’ thinking, and opportunities for learners to take responsibility as they develop alternative ideas and strategies.

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Lucubrate Magazine highlights trends in education and development. Development in this context can be technological, educational, individual, social or global, and everything related to education.
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