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Open Access Problem-based learning: a critical rationalist perspective

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Although problem-based learning is being adopted by many institutions around the world as an effective model of learning in higher education, there is a surprising lack of critique in the problem-based learning literature in relation to its philosophical characteristics. This paper explores epistemology as a starting point for investigating the theoretical underpinnings of problem-based learning as a learning model. Criticisms of empiricism are analysed in terms of the perceived learning outcomes of learners undertaking a problem-based learning curriculum. It is argued that models of empiricism theorised by philosophers such as Bacon, Locke and Hume cannot fully account for the learning model found in problem-based learning curricula. It is proposed that an alternative epistemological approach is needed. The work of Karl Popper is discussed, whose critical rationalist epistemology emphasises the generation of bold conjectures and criticism. Popper's work shows a positive contribution to the demands of higher education, characterised by learners who are serious about making professional progress. The paper concludes by critically analysing the tensions and contradictions of problem-based learning in light of Popper's epistemological theory of critical rationalism. It is argued that a critical rationalist perspective has educational benefits for students as it creates an environment rich in critical thinking, reading and writing and values disjunction and challenge.

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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: November 1, 2008

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  • Founded in 2003 by the UCL Institute of Education, the journal reflects the Institute's broad interests in all types of education in all contexts - local, national, global - and its commitment to analysis across disciplines using a variety of methodologies. It shares the Institute's aspiration to interrogate links between research, policy and practice, and its principled concern for social justice.

    Drawing on these strengths, LRE is a wide-ranging and engaging journal that features rigorous analysis and significant research across key themes in education, including: public goals and policies; pedagogy; curriculum; organization; resources and technology; and institutional effectiveness. Articles and book reviews are written by experts in education, psychology, sociology, policy studies, philosophy and other disciplines contributing to education research, and by experienced researcher-practitioners working in the field. The highest quality of reporting and presentation are ensured through an independent, anonymised peer-review process. As an entirely web-based open access journal, LRE has been able to offer innovative features and formats including: epistolary conversation; colour photos and illustrations; illustrative video clips.

    LRE welcomes relevant articles and book reviews. Please email them to [email protected]

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