Blog: How problem-based learning can aid in understanding the complexity of global challenges.
Henrice Altink discusses the complexities of global challenges and describes how problem-based learning can help in the teaching of these global challenges, in increasingly culturally-diverse classrooms.
By Henrice Altink
Complex global challenges
Global challenges are inherently complex. Take for instance the migration of people from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and other Central American countries to the United States (US). Many of these migrants are ‘pulled’ by the prospect of well-paid jobs and other opportunities in the US and ‘pushed’ by poor conditions at home, including gang violence and increasing and more severe natural disasters. A 2017 report by Médicins sans Frontières (MSF) has shown that those fleeing violence in Central America often experiences more of it along the migration route through Mexico. Many women, for instance, are sexually assaulted along the journey. Both Mexico and the US tend to treat Central American migrants as economic migrants not as men and women escaping gang-related and other violence. They are therefore more concerned with detaining and deporting migrants rather than with protecting and supporting them. Detention facilities are often overburdened and thus easily allow for the spread of disease so that those deported to Mexico or their country of origin can easily infect others. Recent reports have shown that the detention centres in the US and Mexico are hotspots for Covid-19. While many Central American countries closed their borders following the outbreak of Covid-19, deportation flights have continued, thereby increasing concerns about the risk of the spread of the disease by deportees.
The detention and deportation of migrants are regulated by various laws and treaties, such as the ‘Remain in Mexico policy’ initiated by the US and implemented by Mexico, whereby asylum seekers to the US that arrive at the US-Mexico border are turned back to Mexico where they have to await their asylum process. This often leaves them trapped and extremely vulnerable in some of the world's most dangerous cities. Migrants who are not detained at the border and manage to find work in the US tend to end up in low-paid jobs with poor working conditions, mostly in agriculture, construction, and the hospitality sector. Unauthorised migrants, who make up 5 % of the US labour force, are often afraid to complain about unpaid wages or dangerous working conditions because they fear that their employers may take actions that can lead to their deportation. Even though they are often paid relatively little by US standards, migrants send money home. Migrant remittances are a very important source of national income in Central American countries. According to the World Bank, in 2019 remittances constituted nearly 20.9% of GDP in El Salvador and 21.5 % in Honduras. As many of these countries have limited social welfare programmes, remittances are for many people, especially the elderly, an important lifeline. The UN has estimated that globally about three-quarters of migrant remittances are used for essential things, such as food, medicine, and school fees, and that the rest is either saved or invested in asset-building or activities that generate income, jobs and help to transform local economies. Migration from Central America to the US, then, is a multifaceted problem with legal, economic, health, environmental, and social dimensions. But is also a highly politicised issue – just think of Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign promise to build a wall along the US-Mexico border and his more recent claim that migrants coming from Mexico were responsible for hikes in the Covid-19 infection rate in the southern states of the US.
Problem-Based Learning for Global Challenges
Because global problems such as migration are very complex, their teaching requires the use of methods, concepts and techniques from different disciplines and an approach that is centred on understanding the problems.
The core modules of the BA in Global Development are interdisciplinary, drawing on politics, history, environmental sciences and various other disciplines, and they use a teaching method called Problem Based Learning (PBL). PBL was pioneered by Maastricht University, one of the University of York’s partners, in the 1970s. It is a pedagogical approach whereby students learn while they engage actively with meaningful problems in small groups. At the beginning of the week, students use “triggers” from a problem case or scenario to define their own learning objectives. They then undertake an independent, self-directed study before returning to their group to discuss and refine the knowledge that they have acquired through their study. PBL is not about solving the problem per se but rather using problems to increase knowledge and understanding and facilitate the acquisition of various skills and attributes, including communication skills, teamwork, and respect for others.
Problem-Based Learning in culturally-diverse classrooms
PBL is a flexible tool and has been adapted to many educational settings. For instance, it is increasingly used in professional training: both the York Law School and the Hull and York Medical School use PBL. Yet there is limited experience of using PBL with student populations that come from a heterogeneous set of cultures in terms of nationality, race, ethnicity, class etc. Different cultures respond differently to the activating and inclusive teaching formats of PBL, making it difficult to select approaches to suit multiple cultures at once.
The launch of our BA in Global Development and Maastricht’s BA in Global Studies in September 2020 offers scope to discuss and develop PBL in the teaching of global challenges in increasingly culturally-diverse classrooms. Our project, funded by the York-Maastricht-Partnership (YMP), consists of three workshops over two years. The first (virtual) workshop in August 2020 will discuss the inter-cultural hurdles in student-centred learning processes and identify current best practices that work regardless of diversity and also consider those that cannot easily be changed because they fulfil important functions in the didactic set-up of PBL. This discussion will inform the development of a best-practice toolkit, including training material for tutors and introductory material for students on the two new BA programme.
The second workshop will review the implementation of the toolkit and revise it and design three PBL classes informed by the toolkit to be taught on the two BA programmes in 2021-22. The final workshop focuses on the use of PBL to teach Global Challenges and will include some of York’s and Maastricht’s Global South partners as PBL is currently not a teaching mode commonly used by them. York and Maastricht tutors will share their experiences of teaching the jointly-designed PBL classes and discuss with the Global South partners the applicability and transferability of the toolkit.