ELT Best Practices: Problem-Based Learning for ELLs

Mick King has ridden the TESOL trail across Europe and the Middle East, developing a wide range of expertise and approaches in ELT. King, an ESL instructor at the Community College of Qatar, explains how problem-based learning (PBL) can empower students with the skills and confidence they need for the 21st century.

Sherry Blok (SB): In simple terms, what is PBL?

Mick King (MK): PBL is an umbrella term for a whole range of inquiry-based approaches to teaching. PBL stems from education in the medical sciences and business where students are given real-world problem situations to solve. The way I learned it, at Stenden University in the Netherlands, it is an approach to learning in which you do not let students know what the outcomes should be, but feed them a number of scenarios, instances, or clues so that they determine for themselves what they have to do. In the context of L2 teaching, the equivalent would be task-based learning (TBL), but in TBL, students are given an explicit task and outcome. PBL doesn’t always do that.

SB: This might be hard to grapple for teachers more accustomed to a teacher-centered approach to language teaching. However, those using the communicative approach will better understand their role as facilitator, allowing students to “struggle” to find the answer.

Mick KingMK: Many educators are uncomfortable with this approach. Educators need training in PBL but, more importantly, they need to believe in such an approach. The facilitator has a very important role to play and must not dive in unnecessarily and give instructions when students get stuck at times. Once they get used to it and realize the benefit of PBL, they see lessons are in their hands and they become decision-makers in their own learning.

SB: Can you give an example of how you used PBL with your language learners?

MK: In English teaching, PBL is not so common, and it has to be adapted to a certain extent. Let me give you an example with a dissertation writing PBL-style task I designed. Rather than telling the students how to structure a dissertation, I designed a task to help them discover for themselves that you have to follow norms and respect rules. The traditional way would have been to tell them what to do, but the approach I took was a little vignette about how I don’t follow a recipe when I cook. I just get a bunch of ingredients, throw them together and see what will happen. Sometimes I am lucky, sometimes I’m not. And that’s it. That’s all that students get. And I’m often met with a blank stare. Then I ask them what does my story have to do with their dissertations. In some ways it’s a little bit like a game or mystery to solve. Eventually, with your prompting if required, they figure out what they need to do.

SB: Why not just go online and let them read how to do a dissertation?

MK: Some people might argue that my approach is convoluted. I would argue that students quite enjoy it because it’s like a puzzle. They must try to link the vignette with the dissertation. So it is pushing those higher end problem-solving skills if you like. Ultimately what they will do is come up with a list of learning objectives (LOs) and try to find the answers at home. What makes PBL different is that students may come up with LOs that the teacher did not expect. However, if you feel that they will benefit from these unexpected LOs, you encourage students to research them, too. In essence you think, “Oh, why not.” If the students want to find that out, let them.

If you give students explicit LOs as we often do in education, then we limit to a certain degree what students learn. By not declaring the learning outcomes, students may decide to research not only what you think they need, but also what they feel they need.

SB: What is the teacher’s role in PBL?

MK: In a PBL session, the teacher is a facilitator. To a lazy practitioner, it may seem like a piece of cake, but in fact, the facilitator sits with the students, makes sure the students are on track, intervenes to facilitate participation, provides feedback and evaluates so you have to be alert at all times. One of the biggest challenges is to resist the urge to take over. You have to help the students find a way to the LOs without telling them the answer.

SB: Is PBL an “all or nothing” approach? Can it be part of a mixed-methodology approach to teaching and learning?

MK: In English language teaching, it has to be a mixed-method approach to a certain extent; especially when it comes to teaching discreet items.

SB: What is the ideal number of students for PBL?

MK: According to the system I learned, the ideal number of students is 8–12. However, if you have larger classes, in theory, if you had students who are familiar with PBL, there is no reason why you couldn’t have smaller groups, like two or three groups in a classroom.

SB: How would PBL work with multicultural learners?

MK: When I used it in the Netherlands, we had a lot of international students. And you could definitely see a marked difference between those students who came from an inquiry-based background and were comfortable discussing a problem independently and some international students who were used to rote learning. When I first used PBL in Qatar, I had to adapt it to my learners’ background; otherwise, they wouldn’t pick it up. I would even individualize targets. For example, I remember one Qatari student who was too shy to speak up in the group, so to encourage her I secretly set her individual targets to interject, and increased the number of interjections each lesson. Slowly, she started to contribute more. That is the challenge with multicultural learners, some tend to be overbearing while others say nothing.

SB: So how do you promote equal participation?

MK: I give participation points and hold open discussions at the end of each session. At this stage, the students give feedback to one another and even to me. It requires a certain openness to criticism, and giving and receiving feedback. Ultimately, if the atmosphere is open, then it can be very rewarding.

SB: What are the key skills students acquire through PBL?

MK: Some people say that PBL is not suitable for English language training, but I would contest that. In some respects, what PBL promotes is the development of broad soft skills and lifelong skills, regardless of the subject content. As the class format resembles a business meeting, it brings with it responsibility. Students are expected to be prepared for class and share findings with their peers. To give you an anecdote of how beneficial PBL is, I first used it in Qatar at a small university branch campus which was not so well known locally. However, once our PBL-trained students started doing internships and getting part-time jobs, employers were so impressed that ensuing students only needed to state where they studied to be offered work on the spot as we had gained a reputation for training students to stand on their own two feet. PBL teaches 21st-century skills to put students ahead of the crowd.

SB: We’ve mostly spoken of PBL for adult learners, so my question is whether it is suitable for all ages?

MK: If you are going to use it for English learning, I would argue that learners would need at least an intermediate level. PBL can work with younger learners in many ways but they would need a certain level of language to communicate. Some argue that it might be cognitively too challenging for young learners. To contest this view, I am reminded of a well-known speech by Sir Ken Robinson about critical thinking in which he cites research that indicates the older we get, the less ability we have to think outside the box because we are straight-jacketed by our experiences in life. Kids are the ones who can think both critically and creatively. I don’t think age is a barrier there. On the other hand, adult learners are often scared of taking risks in learning; lest they make mistakes and look stupid. Therefore, in a PBL classroom, they need encouragement, positive feedback, and maybe the setting of individual targets.

SB: What are your best practices in PBL you can share with TESOL readers?


  1. Adapt PBL to students’ contexts. You can’t hammer square pegs into round holes. Identify what your students can do. Consider their level and set manageable tasks.
  2. If you want your students to become problem-solvers and critical thinkers, resist the urge to intervene and take over.
  3. Encourage equal contributions from the group. Use a system to reward students with points and positive feedback to avoid “shy” students from disappearing into the background.
  4. Make the students aware that there is more than one answer so they should not fear speaking up in the group.

SB: How should a teacher go about creating a PBL-style course?

MK: It is similar to designing any other course. You start with a list of learning outcomes. If you want assessments, then you design them first, then the materials. Portfolio, reflective and project assessments work better than an end-of-course exam, which tends to get learners to focus only on what is on the test. Design tasks that will help students reach those outcomes and hopefully they will learn a lot more along the way!

About Sherry Blok

Sherry Blok
Sherry Blok is the assistant director of programs at the Centre for Continuing Education, Concordia University. Montreal, Canada. She holds a master’s degree in second language education from McGill University and has more than 20 years of experience as an ESL lecturer in the intensive English program at Concordia University. She received the TESOL Teacher of the Year Award in 2015 and has presented nationally and internationally on topics related to English for academic purposes, global citizenship education, assessment, and teacher feedback.
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2 Responses to ELT Best Practices: Problem-Based Learning for ELLs

  1. teresa stillo ramirez says:

    Sounds a little like the cooking recipe is a metaphor about process learning. I use the sandwich metaphor for teaching simple 5 paragraph essays.

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