Since the initial development of Problem-Based Learning (PBL) at McMaster University’s medical program in the 1960s, this didactic approach has gained increasing interest, spreading to a wide array of academic fields on all continents. In this special issue, we invite contributions investigating the impact of the various practices that have emerged across different academic disciplines on ensuring the longevity of PBL as a pedagogy for the future. We aim to celebrate the impact of the many perspectives on PBL on the continuous progress of PBL as a field of research and gather insights on how the diversity in PBL research and practice contributes to preparing PBL for future challenges in a post-pandemic context.
PBL was first introduced into higher education at the medical school of McMaster University in Canada in 1969 (Servant-Miklos, 2019). The teachers at McMaster experienced a growing dissatisfaction with their students’ ability to adequately apply their acquired academic knowledge and previous learning when they entered clinical practice encountering real patients with complex issues. This led to a restructuring of university courses in medical education to support students’ development of skillsets beyond the acquisition of basic medical knowledge (Barrows, 1996). The subsequently developed interdisciplinary “units” used problem-based case studies as the basis for the students’ learning. Using patient narratives, the students worked in small groups led by a tutor to derive relevant learning issues, investigate these by searching relevant literature and other sources to identify possible causes, explanations and solutions during independent self-study time, before returning to their groups to elaborate on their findings (Dolmans & Schmidt, 2010). The idea of bridging academic knowledge and practice was not new: the Harvard Case Method and other ancestors of PBL had already tried to tackle this for a centuries before the “invention” of PBL (Servant-Miklos, 2019). However, the timing of PBL and the ease with which it could be adapted to other contexts allowed it to spread to other medicals schools. Today PBL is a well-recognized approach within medical education around the globe (Neville, 2009). Other areas within university teaching, such as law and economics, soon began experimenting with this new approach as well. Engineering science followed shortly after (Du et al., 2009) and over the next four decades PBL spread to universities and polytechnics around the world within a growing number of academic disciplines (Savin-Baden, 2014). As the popularity of PBL has grown, so has the diversity of practice in the field. For instance, whereas PBL in the Netherlands follows a 7-step approach pioneered by Maastricht University, PBL in Denmark uses a project-organised approach – and there are many in-between hybrids of both models to be found around the world. Likewise, research on PBL has moved on from its quantitative origins in constructivist psychology, and a whole array of complex methodologies ranging from existential phenomenology to action research have contributed to our understanding of the PBL approach.
If PBL was one of the defining educational innovations of the 20th century, the question of its relevance for the 21st century cannot be taken for granted: is PBL up to the challenges of pandemics, climate change, inequality and the digital divide? Can PBL still thrive in a world dominated by digital education, especially after COVID? What can the diversity of PBL practice and research teach us about pedagogical resilience for the future?