Brianne Gidcumb | March 2015

Problems in Problem Based Learning: Considering Challenges of Implementing PBL in the Arts

Although established decades ago as an educational approach, primarily in higher education, problem based learning is sweeping into the landscape of elementary classrooms. And like with any new (or seemingly new) educational initiative, teachers are experiencing the challenges that come with implementing an inquiry (or problem) -based approach in the classroom.

Today, I’d like to share some challenges and considerations to keep in mind when implementing PBL in the Arts classroom. These are not presented to discourage anyone from exploring problem-based learning, as it can be a very effective educational approach. Rather, my goal is to bring to light some things to consider and address as I share some of the challenges that my colleagues and I have faced in our foray into Project Based Learning, as well as to provide some hope for facing these challenges. There is power in knowledge and in being prepared to face challenges head-on!

What is my role in PBL in the Arts?

One of the biggest paradigm shifts in inquiry-based learning is the role of the teacher. In PBL in the Arts, the teacher is no longer the “sage on stage” but is rather a facilitator. It can be rather difficult to let go of control. By ensuring the authenticity of your problem and its fidelity to standards, and by creating structures for allowing students to explore the problem, it will become easier over time to release control.

The other major challenge I experienced in terms of my role as teacher was professional development. It was difficult to find resources on implementing problem-based learning in the arts classroom, and while there are examples of PBL in the Arts and music classroom out there, there were not many that fit the prescribed PBL in the Arts structure that my district has implemented (presenting the problem, research, vetting solutions, and going to panel). Create a compilation of resources (I’ve created a LiveBinder of materials), establish a network of other job-alike professionals exploring PBL, and don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone- not every PBL will be what you envision it to be, but students will still be gaining valuable skills and information.

How do I plan for PBL?


Inquiry-based learning is rather resource-intense. Whether it be materials for research, technology for presenting, or materials to design or engineer a product, students need a wide variety of materials in order to pursue a solution to whatever problem, project, or essential question is posed. In my experience, the research piece was most challenging, as much of the research needed for students to answer the essential question was not written at a 4th or 5th grade level. Be prepared with as many leveled research resources as possible, and think outside the box in terms of what research means- it could be a field experience, a Q & A with an expert, or a multi-media resource.

Embedding Instruction and Ensuring Authenticity

The beauty of inquiry-based learning is that students are utilizing and gaining valuable skills in the process of their inquiry, however, it can be difficult to ensure that students are meeting particular learning targets or achieving certain standards through the process. PBL is a wonderful educational approach when it is authentic. The problem must be authentic and aligned to standards. If it is not, it doesn’t belong in your classroom or in your curriculum. So often, we get wrapped up in making a new educational approach or initiative work, and we overlook things that may be ill-fit for a particular concept, content area, or group of students.

If there is difficulty in making the problem authentic, expand your definition of what PBL is- step back to an inquiry-based approach (see my article on “The Umbrella of Inquiry”). The point is not to do a PBL for the sake of doing a PBL- the point is to engage students in learning by allowing them to take ownership through exploring essential questions, and through instruction embedded throughout the process, walk away with lasting knowledge.

What challenges have you faced in implementing PBL in the arts classroom, and how have you addressed those challenges?

About the Author

Brianne is a former music educator from Chicago and current graduate class instructor with EdCloset’s Learning Studios. She earned her Masters degree in Music Education from VanderCook College of Music and has over a decade of experience in the elementary general music classroom. With her experience in the performing arts, Brianne is dedicated to building connections between the arts and Common Core Standards, 21st century learning skills, inquiry and project-based learning. In addition to her work with EducationCloset, Brianne is a yoga instructor in the Chicagoland area. You can also find Brianne here: