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Curriculum design: Problem-centred curriculum

Written By: Kieran Briggs
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2 min read
What’s the idea?

A problem-centred curriculum is a cross-curricular, inquiry-based, student-centred approach that is built around real-world problems. Within a problem-centred curriculum, learning transcends subject disciplines and brings together elements of the curriculum that would otherwise be separate. It is designed to develop skilful, knowledgeable, collaborative, self-regulated and self-determined lifelong learners (Casey and Tucker, 1994; Hmelo-Silver, 2004; Savery, 2006).

What does it mean?

A problem-centred curriculum has its philosophical roots in constructivism, whereby knowledge is built through the students’ active participation in the learning process. A problem-centred curriculum places learning in the context of real-world problems that make students want to solve them (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). Problem-centred curriculum models take a ‘learner-centered approach that empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a defined problem.’ (Savery, 2006, p. 12).

Casey and Tucker (1994) suggest the purpose of a problem-centred curriculum is to develop effective learners, which they define as students who are able to solve problems and harness their creativity through their planning and organisational skills. The purpose, therefore, of a problem-centred curriculum is to develop creative problem solvers who:

  • are constantly curious and questioning
  • enjoy figuring things out
  • seek out challenges
  • are persistent
  • are resourceful and flexible
  • are independent learners
  • feel confident about themselves as learners
  • are risk-takers (Casey and Tucker, 1994).

As problem-centred learning is student-centred, the role of the teacher is to act as more of a facilitator – posing problems and guiding the learner. Other characteristics that define a problem-centred curriculum are students being responsible for their own learning through self-regulation and self-determination, student collaboration, free-inquiry, and interdisciplinary learning (Hmelo-Silver, 2004; Savery, 2006).

This curriculum model involves integrating both the content (what is being learned) and the process (how it is being learned). While knowledge acquisition is important, the main focus of a problem-centred curriculum is on developing competencies such as team work, problem-solving skills, higher-order thinking skills, and self-directed learning skills which are transferable across disciplines (Savery, 2006). Students should be given opportunities to reflect on what they have learnt and the effectiveness of the strategies they employed (Hmelo-Silver, 2004; Savery, 2006).

What are the implications for teachers?

  • How can schools design problems and challenges that are real, purposeful and impactful in the wider world, rather than falsify or ‘create’ these so that they pretend to be ‘real’?
  • How can schools ensure that problems are loosely structured and allow for free enquiry so that there is a number of ways they can be solved?
  • How will students’ work be managed when working on multidisciplinary problem-based projects?
  • How will assessment operate within a problem-based curriculum? For example, will students submit portfolios rather than sit examinations?

Want to know more?

  • Casey MB and Tucker EC (1994) Problem-centered classrooms: Creating lifelong learners. The Phi Delta Kappan 76(2): 139–143.
  • Hmelo-Silver CE (2004) Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review 16(3): 235–266.
  • Savery JR (2006) Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning 1(1). Available at: https://doi.org/10.7771/1541-5015.1002 (accessed 22 May 2019).
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